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Tackling College Athletics


Spelman College has dropped all sports and has picked up fitness. They plan to use their athletic facilities and budget to create healthy bodies and habits. Dr. Beverly Tatum, Spelman’s president, chose this path after making disturbing observations about the dollars spent per student athlete and the physical condition of students and young alumni. No doubt every college/university administrator has made these observations at some time. But Dr. Tatum has made an unpopular but wildly responsible move to create meaningful change.

Higher education costs have been rising exponentially for some time. At the same time, a bachelor’s degree has become a minimum requirement for most jobs. College, which was once for ‘some’ people, has become necessary for most people. Colleges and universities in the race to remain competitive have felt compelled to spend extraordinary amounts of money on features giving them an edge. For some schools, an edge means stellar facilities, for others it means technology programs that by their very nature are an insatiable repository of funds. Smaller programs, particularly liberal arts programs, fall to the wayside in some schools as they don’t provide the most obvious return on investment. An institution can sacrifice language programs, performing arts and soft sciences with its eye on higher education dominance.(Nobody ever got on a Top 10 University list by virtue of its wonderful poetry department.)

There has been a collective consensus in recent years that higher education is no longer simply an institution of thinkology. There are only so many resources (public, private, endowment) to go around. Yet athletic programs are still an assumed part of the college experience. Why is that? Why at a time when student debt AND the level of obesity is skyrocketing, do we think higher education athletics is simply a given? Now before you start waving your pennants or foam fingers at me; let’s have a word about school spirit. Piffle. Nobody ever got a better education or a leg up in life from painting their face and wearing overpriced sweatshirts. Is playing on a team fun? Yes, and so is performing in a play. Is cheering on ‘your’ team a kick in the pants? Probably, but so is watching the debating team wipe the floor with the competition. Do team sports teach team skills? One would think. But if we agree that team skills are important (and I’m not convinced they are) can’t they be built in class or on a Habitat For Humanity project?

But what of the schools who actually make a significant portion of their budget from playing sports at an elevated level? Quite frankly I would say; huh?! Is that really what we want higher education to be in 2013? If we really want to train young men and women to be professional athletes, can’t we just create technical sport schools? If we had a crystal ball we may very well see that these schools with profitable athletic programs will in essence become technical sport schools. But for every other school allocating large parts of their budget to athletic programs while their tuition skyrockets, it’s time to reevaluate. Yes the alumni will be up in arms, and yes perhaps some students too. But part of being a charismatic leader is being able to communicate why change is beneficial. The Spelman athletic director (with 25 years on the job) is on board and in agreement with Dr. Tatum’s directive. Dr. Tatum is currently fielding calls from college/university presidents questioning the value of athletics to higher education.

Great leadership should involve more than getting one’s institution’s name in the paper. Great leaders must make difficult and at times unpopular decisions for the betterment of the institution and the people it serves. Cutting costs by cutting sparsely populated (but wonderful) programs is not an act of bravery or long-term solution to higher education costs. We are now into overtime with the issue of higher education affordability. Too many qualified students cannot afford tuition (which is why they have such debt.) Pulling the plug on an expensive program that is not an integral part of a baccalaureate or graduate degree should be a serious consideration.


Posted by on April 14, 2013 in Cultural Critique, Education


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Parent’s Student Debt

During the past few years parents have been borrowing money for their children’s education with increasing frequency. Consumer loans, credit card loans (and the scariest of all) home equity loans are taken to provide higher education to children. Presumably much of this debt is incurred due to a sense of obligation to one’s children. In theory it’s hard to fault such sentiment but in actuality it’s terribly flawed.

  • Higher Education is not a birthright
  • Incurring debt for someone else’s asset is risky
  • Parents (by definition) are older than their children & have less time to rebuild assets

It can be a dreadful feeling to discover you cannot give your child everything you wish for them. It is the rare parent who has not had his Bob Cratchit moment at one time or another. If we were to redefine what we wish for our children we might be able to assuage those Cratchit moments. Do we really wish for our children to attend a four-year private college, and study whatever they choose without cost consciousness? If so, why? Why would we think that shielding a young adult from making realistic decisions about economics and their future is ‘giving them everything?’ Isn’t giving them a realistic understanding of dollars and sense and the world at large, a gift that will last a lifetime? College isn’t (or shouldn’t be) summer camp. It’s not a protected and posh enclave where our adult children should experience life. If it ever wasn’t it simply isn’t anymore. College is a commodity and should be treated as such. Higher education is not one size fits all. We spend a lot of energy trying to match a student’s interests and personality with an institution. Affordability is the starting point for the selection process. If a four-year private college is not affordable, the value to a student of a community college+public college is far higher than a private college.

Public college still costs money and the person to incur that debt (if there must be debt) is the student. If the parent can help the student repay the loan, wonderful. Besides the obvious very real economic risks to a parent in incurring debt on behalf of a child, there is risk to the child as well. Being shielded from the realities of financial life does not help anyone make practical decisions. Being aware of the burden a parent has taken on also affects decisions. Attending college without contributing in a significant manner (i.e., summer jobs, scholarships, loans, work-study, etc.) is no longer the norm, and hasn’t been for quite some time. College is not finishing school and it’s not a series of laurel wreath opportunities. It’s a means to an end and a significant number of students don’t achieve that end. (Imagine losing one’s house or retirement without even a child’s bachelor’s degree to show for it!) Nothing helps a person (especially a young person) take something more seriously when it’s his or her own money at stake.

College has become crucial for future workers; as such we need to rid ourselves of our romanticism about the experience. Getting ready for the big great world is a process. It shouldn’t start after tossing one’s cap in the air. Putting one’s home or future security in jeopardy to delay that process is simply unwise.


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Posted by on November 12, 2012 in Education


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