Last week, The Huffington Post and The Chronicle for Higher Education published an investigation revealing that public universities are subsidizing their athletic programs to the tune of $10.3 billion a year. Millions of students are paying fees they don’t know about to support sports they don’t watch. The reporting revealed that schools with the biggest sports subsidies tend to have large populations of low-income students, meaning that the burden of paying to support athletics is falling on people who can least afford it.
On Thursday, we sat down with the Chronicle's Brad Wolverton and our own Ben Hallman to learn how this story came to be, what they did to get to that $10.3 billion number and what it means for students and universities.
What was the seed of the story?
BH: I cold called Brad with an idea for a story about coaching pay that I knew was going to require a lot of effort and exploration of a subject matter I am not that familiar with. Brad has covered the intersection of sports and higher education for a decade. He was the first person I thought to call. Interestingly that was a story we ended up not writing.
BW: We started talking about a potential collaboration. I had always wanted to look at the issue of subsidies in college sports. I hadn’t in the past because we didn’t have the resources or personnel to dig in. I thought adding the resources of another news organization would really benefit and speed along the timeline in which we could do this.
Tell us about the partnership.
BW: Our audience are higher education leaders. The presidents and chancellors who run universities. They’re the ones who make decisions about how they are going to pay for expenses of athletic departments. The Huffington Post’s audience are the parents of the kids who are going to college, and the kids, who have to pay for the decisions that the presidents and chancellors are making. Putting those two audiences together would give us a much greater reach for the story.
How did you conduct the investigation?
BH: We wanted to first calculate one topline number: How much are universities demanding that their students contribute to their athletic departments? Most schools don’t make that information publicly available. So we collectively filed FOIAs to 235 public universities. Managing that process and that response and figuring out what to do with the information once we got it was a Herculean task. Brad and I were super fortunate to have two experts working on it with us. Shane Shifflett, our data editor at HuffPost, and Sandhya Kambhampati, a database reporter at The Chronicle of Higher Education, crunched the data and helped us reach these big conclusions that underpinned everything we reported.
Tell us about the conclusion you reached.
BH: The story raised many questions about choices being made by public universities. In general, they are doing a bad job of informing students and parents about the true cost of supporting sports on campus.
What surprised you?
BW: I was surprised at the $10 billion number. It was bigger than I expected. I was also surprised by how universities are relying on poor students. In other words the colleges that had the biggest subsidies for athletics relied the most on kids with poor backgrounds to pay for their athletic ambition.
Want to read more? Read the story and this reporter’s note.
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