Misplaced Priorities: NDSU Spends Double Per Athlete Than It Does Per Student


This afternoon the North Dakota State University Bison football team will play in Frisco, Texas, for a third-straight FCS championship title. Thousands of North Dakotans have flocked to Texas for the game. The politicians have made their phony-baloney bets. And the President of NDSU, Dean Bresciani, is assuring us that this is all very good for the university in an academic sense:

“It’s been a mechanism for getting people to look at NDSU in a different light,” Bresciani said. “They’re looking at us as the major research university that we’ve always been. But people in some senses didn’t believe it until they saw us on ‘GameDay’ and that’s gotten them to look at the university and its academic programs in the same light as some of the biggest and best universities in the nation.”

Because that’s what the average College GameDay is thinking about when they see universities featured on ESPN. “I’ll bet they have a really good academic program.”

Cue the rolled eyeballs.

There will no doubt be more reporter hours spent by North Dakota’s media organizations on covering this football championship and its various side-stories than any story about governance in the last year, and that’s unfortunate. Because there’s a very good argument to be made that high-profile sports programs are a distraction from academics, rather than a boon to it, and the occasion of this championship football game is the perfect time to make it.

Consider these numbers pulled from the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics. The chart below shows exploding spending on athletes, and stagnating spending on academics:

chart_1 (4)

From 2005 through 2011 (the last year for which the Knight Commission has numbers), North Dakota State University increased academic spending per full time equivalent student by 32%, but increased institutional spending (not alumni money or ticket sales revenues, etc.) per athlete by 95%. In 2011, NDSU spent roughly 2.11 times more per athlete than student, up from about 1.5 times more per athlete in 2005.

Again, that’s not alumni donations. That’s not revenue from ticket sales and merchandise. That’s tuition dollars, student fees and taxpayer appropriations.

The disparity is a little hard to swallow in an era where the cost of tuition and NDSU and institutions around the country is soaring. To be sure, spending isn’t necessarily an appropriate measure of performance (whether we’re talking about academics or athletics), but it is an indication of priorities, and it’s hard to see how a university founded by the state to teach, not host a football team, can justify such a lopsided allocation of resources.

For what it’s worth, the University of North Dakota isn’t much better than NDSU. UND has a higher per-student spending rate for academics (probably because of the higher per-student cost of flight school and medical students), but their athletics spending still outpaces academic spending by a lot. From 2009 to 2011 (UND didn’t report numbers for 2005 – 2008), per-student academic spending actually fell slightly while per-athlete spending increased over 9%: