Even If Athletics Is A Problem, It’s Not THE Problem

I’m going to offer some observations about recent allegations that Louisiana’s universities are pumping too much money into athletics while academics have suffered–and that they are wasting tax and student money as we face the possible closure of Louisiana’s higher education institutions.

And some people aren’t going to like what I have to say.

First, I don’t dispute either the facts or the seriousness uncovered by Lee Zurik’s investigation here and here. If true, he may well have uncovered some potential NCAA violations in my opinion.

Nor will I dispute Bob Mann’s blogs chronicling how LSU’s academic buildings are crumbling while athletics has the best of the best.

I’ve already commented about the Advocate’s piece on athletic funding as part of their higher ed series.

But I think it is possible to say, again, without disputing either what others have uncovered or the gravity of what they’ve uncovered, that there are other overarching concerns that both help explain why this may be happening and why this obscures the real issue–that Louisiana higher education neither caused our current budget crisis, nor can solve the crisis. And that includes athletics.

First, due to the Jindal administration’s policies, revenue has become increasingly dependent upon enrollment. And not only headcount enrollment (or what admissions folks colloquially call “butts in seats”) but due to performance based funding, enrollment of freshman students who are most likely to successfully graduate from their institutions in less than 6 years. You know those graduation rates that legislators and others are saying are too low? They are based on only one type of student–first time freshmen, almost exclusively new high school graduates, who remain continuously enrolled and graduate in six years or less (or three years at two-year institutions). GRAD Act was a Trojan horse that on the surface looked like it would increase these graduation rates by ensuring student success. And the vast majority of people who supported GRAD Act supported it for exactly this reason.

But as I discovered, GRAD Act rigged the game. What it really did was similar to what some institutions, including K-12 charter schools are accused of doing–cherry pick students who are most likely to increase these numbers. Our universities didn’t even have to intentionally cherry pick either–the mandated admission criteria did that for them. Those criteria that were partially relaxed last year ensured that most of our state’s high school graduates would no longer be eligible for university admission–and that it would educationally disenfranchise our African American students, since only 15% of African American high school graduates qualified for university admission under the GRAD Act linked published standards.  In fact, not all TOPS eligible students qualified for university admission under these criteria! It forced our institutions–mostly universities in this case–to battle for a market that was comprised of almost exclusively LSU-eligible students.

And what is one sure way to recruit high school seniors who can go to LSU or to any other university in our state?

Field successful sports programs, which don’t just attract athletes but students in general. Sports drive overall enrollment.

And while LSU is (now, thanks to budget cuts) at the bottom of the pack when it comes to flagship academic funding,  it is one of only seven athletics programs in the entire country that is self-supporting. It is an elite among elites. More so than any other school in the SEC, and yes, including Alabama.

The rest of our state universities should not be competing with LSU. But thanks to the Jindal administration’s policies, now they do.

The only university in the state who has come even close to competing with LSU in general student recruitment is the University of Louisiana at Lafayette, which is now the second largest university in the state and cracked the 19,000 student barrier this year. The increased visibility and success of its athletics programs can claim some of the credit. The Ragin’ Cajuns football team is a lot better than it used to be, but it’s still not going to beat LSU in Tiger Stadium. However, the Ragin’ Cajuns are going toe to toe with them on the baseball and softball diamonds, and they now have decent basketball teams, too. Up until this year when they were sanctioned by the NCAA, they had been racking up victory after victory in athletics and getting more and more TV time before more and more prospective students.

And as Zurik’s investigation showed, UL Lafayette spends more than any other athletics program in the state by far except LSU. The Ragin’ Cajun Athletic Foundation is modeled after the Tiger Athletic Foundation. When your model is the best of the elite funding models, you are going to be successful. According to USA Today, donations to UL Lafayette’s athletics almost doubled ($3 million increase) between 2013 and 2014 while university subsidies decreased by $2 million. So the recent increase in spending came from donors, not taxpayers.

Louisiana Tech is holding its own as well. But outside of these three institutions (and theoretically UNO, although it is losing the recruitment battle to both LSU and UL Lafayette so I won’t include them here), what about the rest of our universities? Should they be competing directly with LSU, or even with UL Lafayette or LaTech? Should they be expected to?

Let’s look at the mission statements of two of the smaller universities in Zurik’s report: McNeese State and Northwestern State.

McNeese’s mission is explicitly as a teaching institution serving the Lake Charles region:

McNeese State University is primarily a teaching institution whose mission is successful education of the undergraduate and graduate students and services to the employers and communities in the southwest Louisiana region…

McNeese is responsible for serving:

  • Residents of southwest Louisiana who have completed high school and are seeking either a college degree or continuing professional education;
  • Two-year college transfer students, particularly those from Sowela Technical Community College;
  • Employers in the region, both public and private, school districts, health care providers, local governments, and private businesses;
  • Economic development interests and regional entrepreneurs; and
  • The area community, by providing a broad range of academic and cultural activities and public events.

Northwestern’s is less explicit in its geographic focus on a specific service area, but it too is a teaching institution serving its region:

Northwestern State University is a responsive, student-oriented institution that is committed to the creation, dissemination, and acquisition of knowledge through teaching, research, and service. The University maintains as its highest priority excellence in teaching in graduate and undergraduate programs. Northwestern State University will prepare its students to become productive members of society and will promote economic development and improvements in the quality of life of the citizens in its region.

Now there is nothing wrong with either school having athletic programs. But is it their mission to compete with LSU or even with mid-major schools like UL Lafayette or LaTech? No. These are regional, teaching universities whose missions are to serve their regions. However, in an environment where institutions are forced to compete with one another for both resources and students–not because they ARE scarce but because they have been MADE scarce, it’s no wonder that schools spend more on athletics… because they help them recruit more students.

And as I said above, even if everything in Zurik’s reporting is substantiated–and I am not questioning either his reporting or his facts here–it clouds the real issue.

What is our state’s budget hole? THREE BILLION DOLLARS.

So while the academic in me sympathizes fully with the Northwestern professor who lost her job due to cutbacks while athletics flourished, and I don’t condone what happened, this likely would not have happened in the first place if higher education budgets had not been cut 13 times in 8 years, forcing some of our institutions to go from being non-players in the athletics arms race to bit players in order to recruit a decreasing pool of eligible students and survive. (Note I said eligible students. More and more students are there. We just decided more and more were no longer eligible.) The amounts cited in Zurik’s article pale in comparison to the cuts higher education has taken and to the massive crater of a budget deficit we are in.

Here is the real crime.

We have found where most of the $3 billion went.

Over $1 billion from uncollected horizontal drilling revenue.

Over $1 billion in other previously unreported corporate tax breaks.

And much of the rest in borrowing tricks that put the state further in debt as well as shady DHH budgeting that simply kicked the deficit can up the road into the Edwards administration.

Again, I am not at all condoning or minimizing what Zurik found in his reporting… but it is chump change when comparing it to what Jindal did.

Because focusing on college athletic funding obscures the real problem. That the budget situation is not higher education’s fault. In fact, Jindal’s rigged game may be the real reason why some universities may be tempted to break the rules. Because it’s become all about survival.

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