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How much is too much when it comes to spending on college sports?

BY   March 30, 2015 at 3:34 PM EDT
Dec 30, 2014; Ann Arbor, MI, USA; Jim Harbaugh speaks to the media as he is introduced as the new head football coach of the Michigan Wolverines at Jonge Center. Photo by Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports/via Reuters

The University of Michigan’s new head football coach Jim Harbaugh reportedly will make $7 million this year. That’ second only to Alabama’s Nick Saban, who earns around $7.2 million a season. At a time when academic spending per student is being cut, are these price tags justifiable? Photo by Rick Osentoski/USA TODAY Sports/via Reuters

Four teams are still alive in the NCAA men’s basketball tournament. Today, March Madness brings to mind more than big upsets and broken brackets, though. The multi-billion-dollar college sports industry is increasingly answering questions about academic standards, player safety and growing inequities between coaches and athletes.

With tuition and fees on the rise, a poll from Monmouth University finds a majority of Americans think universities with big-time athletic programs spend too much time and money on sports. Perhaps no one knows that better than Mark Schlissel, president of the University of Michigan.

Kirk Carapezza, a reporter with WGBH’s On Campus higher education desk, recently sat down with Schlissel for a rare one-on-one interview and asked him how big-time college sports impacts the bottom line and the identity of a major research university.

“Michigan is fortunate enough that our athletic program pays its own way,” Schlissel said. “Sports isn’t, for us, a drain on the enterprise. It’s a neutral in terms of costs and a big positive in terms of community.”

Listen to the full interview:

The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics finds that since 2008 Michigan has cut academic spending per student by 3 percent while increasing athletic spending per athlete by 36 percent. The Commission predicts that escalation in spending on coaching salaries and facilities will continue at rates disproportionate to growth in academic spending. It says the disclosure of finance enhances the ability of colleges and universities to make sure athletic programs advance the mission of higher education.

“Data show that over the past decade, coaching salaries for major college football and basketball coaches soared while university academic budgets stagnated and pressure for greater player benefits intensified,” says Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission. “There is no evidence that the trends will stop absent a different financial regulatory approach or a shift in the incentives to reward educational outcomes, not just winning teams, more significantly.”

You can track athletic and academic spending by institution here.

This story comes from On Campus, a public radio reporting initiative focused on higher education produced in Boston at WGBH.

PBS NewsHour coverage of higher education is supported by the Lumina Foundation and American Graduate: Let’s Make it Happen, a public media initiative made possible by the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

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