College Program Budgets & Why They Matter (or not)

By Ryan Sparks | April 22, 2014

If you have an opinion here, we're happy to hear it.

WASHINGTON, DC - Every year, athletic departments across the US are required to submit numbers including athletically related financial aid, recruiting budgets, and specific team revenue and expenses to the US Department of Education's office of post-secondary education. These numbers are then placed on the Equity in Athletics website for all the world to see.

We made a few phone calls in regards to reporting methods, and before you get all excited about looking up specific program budgets, here are a few (but not all) of the caveats:

  • Athletic departments may count expenses differently, i.e. a fundraising/endowment/boat/building expense may be counted as a portion of operating expenses for one program whereas it is not for another.
  • The US office of post-secondary education may change the numbers submitted to meet their own standards - which would create greater parity, however this seems to be an embarrassingly inconsistent practice.
  • EADA doesn't meet athletic administrators' needs. A company called Winthrop Intelligence carries specific programmatic budget (and even detailed coaching contract) information for NCAA institutions given Freedom of Information Act requests. They then sell this back to athletic departments for about $10K/year.
  • "Athletically related student aid" or scholarship money is given as a total per institution, however not included is any data on internal tuition or fee waiver programs that may lessen the need for higher aid funds.

Choosing a school based on the program's budget is kind of like picking one based on endowment; while it's a data point, its value to the student experience is not a direct link. "So why consider including it?" you ask. Because it demonstrates some of the gaps (and thus needs) in our sport. Because it is a data point. And because there's some reasonable information if taken with a grain of salt - and finally because some folks are already using it without any education on the data. Here are a few ideas on how to use the data:

  • Compare schools in the same conference. Schools in the same conference generally have similar reporting methods.
  • Compare operational expenses over three years as opposed to one; this should account for some of the abnormalities presented by capital expenditures 
  • Keep in mind travel budgets vary greatly by institution and can heavily impact operational expenses. Be aware of teams' schedules during the reporting year. 
  • If you really want to know the number of scholarships available and how they work, have your student call the coach. Programs differ greatly in how they utilize their funding, and it's generally one of the hardest decisions coaches have to make - of course, if you've done your research and your student believes themselves to be scholarship material at specific programs, the coach will enjoy hearing from them - as long they're juniors or older.

The numbers can be an initial research point as students seek to solidify a school list (used correctly they do necessitate a better overall understanding of programs), but we would not recommend using them to shorten a school list unless the differences are extremely broad - and in the case they're extremely broad, it would suggest the student has more work to do with values inside them rather than those outside them.