The Urban Institute has a piece that explores how many low-income students could be offered college scholarships if college athletics were eliminated. As it turns out, most college sports programs spend more than they receive in revenue (although this excludes other possible sources of revenue, such as donations and additional enrollment that may be related to support for the sports program). Erica Blom, who is a research fellow at the Urban Institute, calculates that if you remove the amount of money devoted to athletic scholarships, sports programs at the top 230 institutions lose about $798 million per year. At $4,000 per scholarship, she estimates that eliminating college sports could add another 199,400 scholarships that universities could offer to low income students. Blom acknowledges that sports may produce some benefits, but she concludes that “many of these benefits, however, can arguably be gained through participation in intramural sports.”
Let’s leave aside whether she is accurately calculating the net cost of these sports programs. And let’s leave aside her general conclusion that these programs produce little or no benefit in exchange for their cost. And let’s further leave aside her implicit assumption that there is a superior benefit to be realized from spending the money instead on nearly 200,000 partial scholarships for students who may have a low probability of completing degrees for which they would be induced to take on substantial debt even with their partial scholarships. What Blom’s argument boils down to is that she doesn’t like college sports and would rather that the money be spent on something else. She’s not alone in this view. Many education analysts have a distaste for college sports and would prefer those resources be diverted to other activities.
Of course, we could all pick different aspects of higher education that we think are of dubious value, and, without having to prove it, argue that money devoted to those functions should be spent on something that we think is better (without having to prove that it is really better). I might say that there are entire degree programs, often ending in the word “studies,” that confer little or no benefit (and maybe even harm) on students and yet in aggregate cost hundreds of millions of dollars. Why don’t we do away with those to pay for more scholarships? The only reason people can so easily suggest abolishing college sports, as opposed to some other university effort, is that there is — quite literally — a prejudice against college athletics among education expert-types.
Most people outside of the edu-policy sphere, however, place a very high value on college sports. This doesn’t just include the millions of fans who spend billions of dollars on watching sporting events and buying merchandise, but also the thousand upon thousands of college students who participate in college athletics each year. They clearly think these activities have value, so why should we substitute Blom’s preference for theirs? It’s not as if the handful of largely ambiguous social science studies to which Blom links prove that these millions of people are suffering from false consciousness in finding benefits in college sports.
To illustrate how specious it is to favor abolishing college sports to pay for scholarships, let me offer a counter-proposal: let’s abolish think tanks. According to a 2013 report, a group of 21 think tanks generated $1.076 billion in annual revenue. That’s just 21 of them. There are scores more. The social benefit of the funds devoted to these think tanks is of highly dubious value. Like college sports, think tanks have been marred with corruption and sex scandals. And think tanks facilitate a large amount of PLDD where people sit in their offices imagining how they would run the world better, doing things like taxing snacks, building light rail, or abolishing college athletics. Wouldn’t the world be better off if we eliminated think tanks and used those funds to pay for college scholarships instead?
See? Isn’t this fun? Let’s all imagine things we don’t like and fantasize how things would be so much better if only those resources were devoted to things we did like. We could get jobs in think tanks to do it.