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Why I love, but also hate, March Madness

I'm a crazed basketball fan, but as an educator, I hate myself for watching March Madness. College sports are a plague on American higher education. They add a big-ticket item to mounting costs, and they compromise academic quality. Here are the numbers to prove it.

By Jonathan Zimmerman / March 28, 2013

Fans of Florida Gulf Coast University men's basketball celebrate the team's trip to the Sweet 16 on March 25. Op-ed contributor Jonathan Zimmerman writes: 'By investing heavily in hoops, the argument went, a previously unknown institution [Florida Gulf Coast University] has become a household name. Please. If history is any judge, applications to FGCU will go up for a few years and then flatline.'

Sarah Coward/The News-Press/AP

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I’m a crazed basketball fan, so I love it when the NCAA tournament rolls around. But I’m also an educator, and so I hate myself for watching.

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That’s because college sports are – to put it bluntly – a plague on American higher education. They add a big-ticket item to our mounting costs, and they compromise our academic quality. And now we’ve got the numbers to prove it.

Let’s start with costs. Colleges in the Football Bowl Subdivision – the most competitive of the Division I programs – spent an average of nearly $92,000 per athlete in 2010, according to a January study by the American Institutes for Research. For the student population at large, the average per capita spending was less than $14,000.

I’ll spare you the math: These schools spend more than six times as much on athletes as they do on students generally.

True, some programs bring in rich revenues via TV contracts, ticket sales, and concessions. But fewer than one-quarter of FBS programs generate more money than they spend. The others rely on institutional subsidies and student fees to keep their sports teams going.

Nor do these investments yield big payoffs down the road, as many people still believe. Remember the so-called “Flutie factor” at Boston College, which allegedly experienced a surge in applications after Doug Flutie’s winning “Hail Mary” pass against the University of Miami in 1984? It turns out that applications were already going up before then, thanks to new campus facilities and other improvements.

Even at schools where applications spike after athletic successes, the bump generally lasts only a year or two. And studies show that winning sports teams have little effect on alumni donations, blasting another well-worn myth.

Here’s what we do know: Schools lower their admission standards for athletes. According to a 2008 study of 54 public universities, male basketball players entered college with an average SAT score more than 200 points lower than the average score for the school.

But athletes receive the biggest admissions boost at elite colleges, which pride themselves on their academic bonafides. As former Princeton President William Bowen has shown, recruited athletes have about a 50 percent better chance of gaining admission to highly selective colleges than other kids with similar credentials.

While affirmative action for minorities continues to cause controversy across our higher education system (they have an 18 to 24 percent advantage in admissions), almost nobody objects to the much greater affirmative action that we grant to athletes.

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