HARTFORD, Conn. - UConn students wishing to attend Huskies sporting events next year won't have to purchase tickets. Instead, the school announced earlier this month, they will gain admission simply by swiping their student ID cards.
In one sense, the new policy change means that UConn games will be "free" to all students. In another sense, however, admission will still cost them.
Full-time students on UConn's Storrs campus each paid $3,428 in mandatory student fees for the 2018-19 school year, with $447 of that figure directed toward athletics. During the 2019 fiscal year, the Huskies' athletic department will receive more than $8.9 million in student fees, up slightly from 2018, according to a university spokesperson. That means that students are paying significantly for sporting events, whether or not they actually attend any games.
What is the purpose of these fees? How are they different from tuition? And how does UConn compare to other schools when it comes to using student fees for its athletic department? Here is what to know about the use of student fees in UConn athletics.
What does the athletic department's $8.9 million in student-fee revenue pay for?
Per UConn chief financial officer Scott Jordan, the $8.9 million the athletic department receives in student fees is distinct from the $30 million it gets in "institutional support" in that it funds specific programs and remains relatively steady from year to year.
UConn's athletic department uses student fees to cover two main categories of expenses, Jordan said:
- Access to athletic-department facilities for the broader student body, including for intramural sports competitions or general use
- Discounts for student tickets
Up through this year, students had effectively paid twice to attend sporting events: once with their fees and again with their ticket purchases. The decision to allow admission at no extra charge means that fees will now cover the full cost.
"There's both some fairness and some supply-and-demand reasons for this (new policy)," Jordan said. "We want to get students excited about UConn athletics, especially football. Our student section at football is pretty sparsely attended."
Student fees help UConn's athletic department close a budget deficit that measured $41 million in 2018.
How does UConn compare to other athletic departments when it comes to student fees?
According to Ohio University sports administration professor David Ridpath, small-conference athletic departments, which often don't generate much revenue, typically rely more heavily on student fees than major-conference ones, which sometimes don't need student fees at all. UConn's $8.9 million total, therefore, looks large when compared to "Power 5" schools but relatively small when held up against fellow "Group of 5" members, Ridpath said.
"For a school like UConn, if they went to a Power 5 conference, they would likely need much, much less than that," Ridpath said. "But, not that I say I like it, it's not outlandish in terms of where UConn fits with everybody else in the Group of 5 with regards to student fees."
This Power 5 vs. Group of 5 dynamic came through clearly in a 2018 Houston Chronicle analysis of student-fee usage by college athletic departments in the state of Texas. Per the Chronicle, powerhouse departments Texas and Texas A&M did not direct any student fees toward athletics, while the athletic department at the smaller, lower-revenue Texas State used $18 million in student fees to fund its sports teams. Houston, an AAC school with a similar athletic profile to that of UConn, spent $8.1 million in student fees on sports, about the same as UConn.
Memphis, which also competes in UConn's conference, used $7.3 million in student fees to fund its athletic department in 2018, according to a spokesperson. South Florida's athletic department, meanwhile, accepted $17.3 million in student-fee revenue in 2018, while East Carolina's took in $15.8 million. AAC football powerhouse UCF used $22.6 million in student fees for its athletic department, more than two and a half times UConn's total.
Jordan said the amount of student fees UConn directs toward athletics has remained largely flat in recent years, even as the athletic department's financial situation has worsened.
Will UConn's athletic department decrease its student-fee intake if its financial situation improves?
Jordan said that because student fees fund specific programs, they do not typically rise and fall based on a department's bottom line. That means even if UConn's athletic department improves its financial situation in the coming years, students will continue to pay similar student fees.
"None of our models would show us trying to reduce that ($8.9 million) support," Jordan said. "It's been part of the business model for the athletic department, and you can point right to benefits that the students get for that $8 million."
UConn's fees are determined by a committee of students and faculty housed in the student affairs office, not by university administration.
Why does UConn issue student fees, instead of simply raising tuition?
The fees that help fund athletic departments nationwide exist among a broader landscape of student fees, which have risen faster than tuition in recent years.
Ridpath said schools often increase fees instead of tuition because the latter tends to attract more attention and more resentment.
"Fees have always been this kind of hidden - even though they're theoretically out there - a kind of murky area where a lot of hidden costs could be put," he said. "They've just really morphed into an area where they can kind of be hidden and increased with very little oversight."
Jordan said tuition money and fee money typically fund different sorts of programs. Whereas tuition (as well as block grants from the state) pays for academic activities, he said, fees generally fund auxiliary activities.
In addition to athletics, students fees at UConn help pay for recreation services, tutoring centers, student activities, a career center, student health and wellness, infrastructure, technology and more.
Why does UConn charge these fees to all students, even ones who don't attend sporting events or use athletic facilities?
This coming fall, students on the Storrs campus will be faced with another mandatory student fee: $500 per undergraduate (and $400 per graduate student) for use of the school's brand new recreation center. The fee, like the one that helps fund the athletic department, will apply to all students, not only the ones who benefit from it.
Jordan defended the rec-center fee, arguing that charging all students for a building that only some will use is no different than a city collecting tax revenue to build a park, even if not every resident will spend time there.
"That it is a facility that is available to all students," Jordan said. "We can't compel people to use it, but it is available to all students. It's part of a broader health and wellness effort that we know contributes to student success."
The same logic applies to admission to sporting events, which will be available to all students, even if not all students take advantage.
Ridpath said it's understandable that universities extend fees across their entire student bodies but wants students to know what they're being charged for. When they swipe their ID cards and enter sporting events, he said, "They're paying for that. That's not free. Free is when you're not paying a dime."
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