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What the U.S. News & World Report college rankings can teach us about UNI’s budget

April 2nd, 2012 · No Comments

The idea for this column started with a nagging question:  why does Truman State, the former Northeast Missouri State University, keep beating the University of Northern Iowa every year in the U.S. News & World Report rankings of Midwestern public universities?

For several years, UNI has appeared among the top-ranked public universities in the Midwest by U.S. News & World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” guidebook. UNI was once again highly ranked in the 2012 guidebook, and UNI trumpeted this in a Sept. 13, 2011 release and on its National Rankings and Honors website.  Once again we were behind Truman State.

As the Iowa House of Representatives insists that public university budgets still need to be cut (after years of cuts—have they looked at the trend line?), there has been little discussion at UNI about how to consider athletic programs in light of budget reductions.  Does Truman State have some secret in resource allocation that drives its success?  I decided to analyze the U.S. News & World Report 2012 rankings for the Top 50 Midwestern universities (eliminating private universities, since they don’t have to deal with the politics of state funding).  Who were UNI’s public university peers in the Midwest, and why was Truman State always the highest ranked public institution?

UNI Panthers at Play in the UNIDome

One very interesting anomaly emerged for UNI in comparison to its high-rated Midwestern regional public university peers:  UNI alone has NCAA Division I athletic programs.  And that tells us a lot of what we should know about UNI’s budget.

Rank, Midwest Regional University (Public Only) University Enrollment (undergraduate) Sports Division
#8 Truman State 5,675 NCAA Div. II
#16 University of Northern Iowa 11,391 NCAA Div. I
#16 (tie) UW-LaCrosse 8,958 NCAA Div. III
#28 Univ. of Illinois-Springfield 3,197 NCAA Div. II
#32 *UW-Eau Claire 10,784 NCAA Div. III
#34 Univ. of Michigan-Dearborn 7,008 NAIA
#36 *Univ. of Minnesota – Duluth 10,628 NCAA Div. II
#37 Grand Valley State (MI) 20,986 NCAA Div. II
#44 Univ. of Nebraska – Kearney 5,162 NCAA Div. II
#44 UW-Stevens Point 9,054 NCAA Div. III
#50 UW-Whitewater 10,144 NCAA Div. III
* University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire and University of Wisconsin-Duluth are also on UNI’s Peer Institutions list that is kept by the UNI Office of Institutional Research.  Strangely enough, 7 of the 10 institutions on the UNI list, (except for UW-Eau Claire and UM-Duluth, as noted above, and Cal State-Fresno), are classified as National, instead of Regional, universities.  USN&WR classifies regional universities as those that “offer a full range of undergrad programs and some master’s programs but few doctoral programs.” This describes UNI quite well. They classify national universities as those that “offer a full range of undergraduate majors, master’s, and doctoral degrees.” Is it time for UNI to reconsider its peer institutions?  UNI’s own selected peer institutions seem more aspirational in terms of athletics (all but UW-Eau Claire and UM-Duluth are NCAA Division I) rather than being reflective of UNI’s academic mission.


The Impact of being NCAA Division I

Being a Division I athletics school is both an honor of sorts, and a heavy burden of requirements and costs to belong to the club.  Those costs are largely responsible for the UNI Athletic Department’s persistent deficits, which have totaled more than $62 million from 1997 to 2011, according to research by UNI professor of finance Frank Thompson.

Because UNI has NCAA Division I athletic programs, it gets the honor of competing against bigger universities, and occasionally beating them.  As I write this, I know that readers are probably only thinking about football and men’s basketball, since those are the sports that get the media coverage.  Many Iowans can warmly recall UNI’s men’s NCAA tournament basketball victory over Kansas in 2010, but most have no idea what happened to the UNI volleyball team this year (they made it to the second round of the NCAA tournament) let alone in 2010 (they were ranked as high as No. 10 in the season). But for a comprehensive regional university like UNI, meeting NCAA Division I standards wreaks havoc on the academic budget:

  • UNI is required to offer a minimum amount of scholarship aid to student athletes. And, UNI has a lot of teams and athletes. For members of Division I, the NCAA requires they offer “at least 14 sports (at least seven for men and seven for women, or six for men and eight for women). Moreover, concerning budget issues, Division I institutions must offer a minimum amount of financial aid but may not exceed established maximums,” says the NCAA. UNI offers 6 men’s sports (basketball, cross country, golf, track & field, football and wrestling) and 9 women’s sports (basketball, cross country, golf, track & field, soccer, softball, swimming & diving, tennis, and volleyball).  Scholarships for members of all these teams are expensive.  This is part of what led to a deficit of $4,559,447 in UNI’s athletics budget, with was covered with money from the UNI General Education Fund. UNI athletics is the largest single auxiliary enterprise (i.e., non-instructional unit) to pull funds from the General Education Fund.
  • As a Division I school, UNI is part of the ever-climbing coaching salaries juggernaut, without the requisite revenue to play that game.  (This is why UNI runs its athletic program at a significant deficit, whereas the University of Iowa, with a bigger media contract and more contributions, makes money, and Iowa State, with less notable sports programs, comes close to breaking even.)  Like at other Division I universities, the highest paid employee isn’t the president, it’s a coach – in this case, men’s basketball coach Ben Jacobsen, who earns $475,000 a year in base salary. Football coach Mark Farley makes $267,412, more than twice what the highest paid women’s team coach makes, and way more than any professor makes.

UNI’s administration remains committed to the idea UNI must play at the NCAA Division I level, regardless of the fact that it adds nothing to the academic bottom line, much less to UNI’s academic ranking.  (Putting that money toward smaller class sizes and more classroom, faculty, and lab support would help UNI’s ranking with U.S. News & World Report.) As much as some people like Panther sports, UNI’s sports teams are almost always secondary to Iowa and Iowa State’s.  That pecking order is part of UNI’s culture—UNI’s football games always start in the early evening, after the other two universities have finished their games.

In the USN&WR rankings, Truman State beats UNI every year because academics are that university’s first priority.  Truman State actually has more varsity sports than UNI (including baseball, tennis, and swimming for men, all of which UNI has eliminated), but it plays them at the Division II level.

That UNI has done so well in the rankings with an overly expensive Division I athletic program is a tribute to UNI’s outstanding academics, which carry all of the weight in these rankings. For regional comprehensive universities like UNI, the U.S. News & World Report measures are “peer assessment; graduation and retention rates; faculty resources (for example, class size); student selectivity (for example, average admissions test scores of incoming students); financial resources; [and] alumni giving.”  Note that sport programs do not count in the most well known rankings of “America’s Best Colleges.”

But, as UNI cuts academic programs much more severely than athletic programs (and as athletic programs soak up a finite amount of financial support from alumni and the community), we risk losing ground.

How to fix the budget problem by scaling athletics for UNI

  1. UNI could drop football.  Ninety-seven of the 335 NCAA Division I members do not sponsor football.  It’s the most expensive team sport, by far, in terms of equipment, facilities, coaching staff size, and student scholarships.  There are plenty of schools notable for their basketball or other sports programs who are wise to not get caught up in the expense of football, including the top 6 schools in the Midwest regional university rankings (all private universities): Creighton, Butler, Drake, Valparaiso, Xavier, and Bradley.  President Robert Maynard Hutchins famously dropped football from the University of Chicago in 1939 because he thought it drew too much attention away from academics.  The university survived, and today is ranked much higher as a national university than any of its former Big Ten conference competitors.  The school even reinstated football in 1969, but plays at the Division III level. [Update: What I should have more clearly specified is that Drake, Butler and Valparaiso do play football at the Division 1 level, but do not offer scholarships (which is different from typical Division 1 sports, including football at UNI). They are all part of the special non-scholarship Pioneer Football League. Thanks to a comment from a sharp reader.]
  2. UNI could step down to NCAA Division II or III.  Both are the much more common options for our peer institutions in the USN&WR rankings.Consider Division II as an option: As the NCAA explains, “Division II is an intermediate-level division of competition, which offers an alternative to both the highly competitive level of intercollegiate sports offered in Division I and the nonscholarship level offered in Division III.”  In terms of scholarship costs, few get full-ride scholarships, but they can get some university financial aid. “For the rest of their expenses,” the NCAA says, “student-athletes are on their own—using academic scholarships, student loans and employment earnings just like most other students attending the Division II institution. This healthy partnership is the essence of Division II, where student-athletes are valued for their athletics contribution and for being an important part of the overall student body.”UNI could still continue athletic operations at the Division II level, but in a manner more befitting the focus of UNI and its role in the state of Iowa. UNI could still have student athletics, and use its substantial athletic complex. Note the table above:  Truman State, University of Illinois-Springfield, University of Minnesota-Duluth, Grand Valley State, and University of Nebraska-Kearney are all Division II, and rank well without Division I sports.  Also note that Wisconsin regional universities – UW-LaCrosse, UW-Eau Claire, UW-Stevens Point, and UW-Whitewater – all exist as fine academic institutions with even less expensive Division III athletics. (See the full comparisons of Divisions I, II, and III at the NCAA website.)

Unfortunately, the UNI community didn’t get a chance to have a conversation that considered these or other possible solutions to UNI’s money-losing athletic programs.  In recent cuts announced, the UNI athletic department will have to only cut $500,000 over the next three years, which doesn’t mean an end to the athletic deficits.  In fact, UNI forged an agreement with the Iowa Board of Regents (BOR) in 2010 which explicitly gave UNI permission to run a deficit in its athletic program as long as it would not be more than 2.4% of the university’s general fund budget – about $4.2 million, UNI calculated.  Coming off a year in which UNI’s men’s basketball team made it to the Sweet 16 in the NCAA tournament, perhaps everything looked rosy for UNI athletics.

The wording of the 2010 agreement between UNI and the BOR was keen to make it an all-or-nothing proposition, which would preclude consideration of other options for UNI athletics: “Eliminating university general fund support of intercollegiate athletics would terminate Division I athletics at UNI, and most likely intercollegiate athletics at any level at UNI,” the report said.  Nowhere in the 18-page agreement was there any consideration of a different mix of sports, or competition at another NCAA level.  In fact, the benefits cited in the report for maintaining UNI’s Division I sports – “including the impact on the recruiting of students and faculty, fundraising, connecting with alums, maintaining morale and school spirit on campus, and marketing of the university” – could all be accomplished with a reconfigured athletic program that does not require bailouts from the university’s precious academic funds.

Here’s my challenge to UNI:  let’s engage in an academic competition, and put our money into academic programs.  Our biggest challenge shouldn’t be spending millions of our educational funds hoping we’ll beat Kansas in a game of hoops. How about putting those millions into academic programs and faculty and becoming the top ranked public university in the Midwest?

In other words, it’s finally time to beat Truman State.



Tags: NCAA · Price Lab School · Sports · State Budgets · Universities · University of Northern Iowa

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