by Jay Rosenstein
In April of 1997, the University of Illinois, Urbana athletic department was in big trouble.
It found itself in a $1.4 million hole, and budget projections showed that the department would continue to run that deficit each year well into the future. “What’s alarming,” said the Chancellor’s liaison to athletics at the time, “is that even under the best-case scenario, we end up with a deficit.”
The Board of Trustees decided that immediate action was necessary.
After much discussion, they chose a solution: a mandatory student fee for the athletic department, primarily to help pay off the debt for remodeling the football stadium five years prior. It would be the first such fee in University of Illinois, Urbana history.
“What alternatives do we have?” asked then-Trustee Tom Lamont, quoted in a Champaign News Gazette story. “I submit to you that we have none. And it is a responsibility in which students must share.”
But the students disagreed. In a student referendum held a little over a week before the Board was set to approve the fee, students voted against the new athletic fee by a landslide margin – 88% to 12%. The then-Student Body President remarked that she couldn’t recall another issue that lost by such a wide margin.
But it made little difference. Eight days later, at their regular monthly meeting, amid protests by students who packed the meeting room, the U of I Board of Trustees instituted a mandatory $34 per semester per student fee to help balance the athletic department’s budget.
Twenty years later, that fee is still there. Illinois students are still paying it.
The budget problem that the fee was originally meant to fix has long since disappeared. Yet the fee has never been revisited by the student committee that evaluates student fees or the student government, or publicly by the university administration or the Board of Trustees. Most students aren’t even aware that they’re paying the fee, let alone what it’s for, or how it got there in the first place.
And how could they? The athletic fee doesn’t even appear by name on their university bills.
It’s virtually disappeared, buried and hiding. Except it’s still there.
The mysterious student athletic fee is just one of the findings uncovered as part of an in-depth, multi-year investigation into the way the University of Illinois, Urbana funds its athletic department.
FINANCIAL CONDITIONS CHANGE, BUT THE FEE DOESN’T
The 1997 athletic fee was instituted based on projections that the UI athletic department was on an unavoidable path of constant debt. But in the ensuing years, some unexpected developments changed all that, and the fortunes of the athletic department improved dramatically.
In 2006, the UI’s athletic conference, the Big Ten, created the first television network just for an individual conference. It has proven to be a cash cow, flooding the conference’s schools with unexpected new money. Revenue to the UI athletic department has more than doubled, from $45 million in 2004 (the first year totals are available), to just over $96 million in 2016.
Twenty years earlier, students had predicted this possibility. In the debates leading up to the approval of the 1997 fee, according to a newspaper account, students asked the Board of Trustees for a cap on the length of time the fee would be on the books, “so that if the athletic department develops a budget surplus, the fee could be reduced or discontinued.”
Then-trustee Tom Lamont promised that the board would review athletic finances annually, and if the department ran a surplus for five years, the fee could probably be reduced. But he scoffed at that possibility. “I think it’s unrealistic to expect that we will somehow find our (athletic) budget bloated with excess revenues,” he said in the same newspaper story, labeling that scenario as “dreamland.”
But dreamland did, in fact, arrive. For nine consecutive years, from 2005 to 2013, the athletic department ran a surplus. But Mr. Lamont and the other trustees from 1997 were long gone from the Board, and any deals or promises made at the time were forgotten. The students who had protested the fee at the time were long gone too.
All that’s left is the fee. It’s still there.
MORE STUDENTS, MORE MONEY
The 1997 student athletic fee was created to pay for a $1.4 million-a-year athletic department expense for the financing of the 1992 renovation of Memorial Stadium (the football stadium), as well as some smaller remodel costs for a few other athletic buildings. Based on the number of students at the time, the Board calculated that charging $34 per student per semester would yield the necessary $1.4 million total, which would, a newspaper article read, remove “that cost from the Division of Intercollegiate Athletics budget … thus erasing its deficit.”
But a funny thing happened to the UI on the way to erasing its athletic deficit.
The student body grew, significantly. And the total amount of money collected from the $34 per student per semester fee grew significantly too. Today, the fee that was originally created to erase a $1.4 million debt is generating just over $3.2 million in revenue, more than double the original amount. It’s turned out to be an unexpected financial windfall.
The original student protestors of the fee would have seen this as the perfect time to reduce it, just as they had asked. But instead, the university took the fee, and quietly, shifted it to pay for something else.
In 2006, the UI athletic department had undertaken another football stadium renovation, this one far bigger, and at $104 million, far more expensive than the previous one. The money for this renovation would be used to build, according to the bond issue documents, “48 18-seat luxury suites, approximately 202 (premium) indoor club seats and 1,136 (premium) outdoor club seats.”
And the 1997 student fee, the one created to pay off the 1992 football stadium renovation, was now going to help pay for this new renovation.
“That … was largely a renovation that benefited those sitting in luxury seating,” said State Senator Scott Bennett, whose district includes UI, when he learned about the fee. “So that one is particularly egregious because the people that it’s really benefiting (are the ones) who should be paying for it. Not students who are never going to see the inside of it.”
But the students did get something in the deal, other than the usual student ticket discount. In a 2013 News Gazette newspaper story, the UI associate vice president for planning and budgeting “noted that the project included a new student section at the north end of the stadium.”
Not noted was what the students gave up, or more accurately, what was taken away – the old student section, located in the stadium’s sweet spot on the fifty-yard-line. They were instead relocated behind the end zone, historically some of the most difficult seats to sell. In other words, the renovation moved the student section from the best seats in the house to some of the worst.
And the students paid, and are still paying, for that privilege.
IT’S STILL THERE?
So why hasn’t anything been done about the fee? Mitch Dickey was as deeply involved in UI issues as just about any student could be. He finished his senior year, in 2015-16, as the UI Student Body President. Certainly he would be aware of the $34 per semester student fee for the renovations of the football stadium?
“No, I wasn’t,” he said. “(And) I’ve sat on the committees as well.”
Victor Rivera, another senior who has also served in student government, had a similar reaction. “I didn’t know this before today,” he replied. “And it’s frustrating now that I know it.”
One can forgive these students for having no knowledge of the fee. That’s because it isn’t listed in the “Tuition and Fee” section of university’s website. Nor does it appear on the students’ invoices.
The invoices sent from the U of I contain an itemized list of expenses (see below). These include charges such as tuition, housing, meal plan, etc., as well as a number of fees. But the $34 athletic fee is nowhere to be found.
A typical in-state student invoice, 2015-16
That’s because it is contained within a category called “General Fee.” And the individual expenses that make up the General Fee, such as the $34 athletic department fee, aren’t listed.
“We don’t … see a line item of everything, so we have no clue … where our money is going,” said current UI senior and student government member Patricia Rodriquez.
The one place students, and the public, can find out what the General Fee is for is on the Office of the Registrar’s section of the UI’s website. For the past several years, the explanation of the General Fee has read:
A fee to support certain fixed costs of fee-supported buildings (Activities and Recreation Center, Ice Arena, State Farm Center, Illini Union, etc.) on campus.
There’s no mention of the football stadium, Memorial Stadium, among the list of buildings. And the buildings that are listed are ones used primarily or significantly by students, unlike the football stadium. But the description does include the word “etc.,” which means that technically the fee could be used to support pretty much any campus building.
“It upsets me because why did someone see to write it this way in the first place?” asked Pius Weibel, a parent to a then-UI student. “Why present it in a form for people to wonder, what is it?”
There is one other place where the public can find information about the UI’s student fees: the website of the Illinois Board of Higher Education, or IBHE. The IBHE has detailed lists of the student fee costs for each of the state’s public universities. It even has a specific category for disclosing the amount of athletic fees, labeled “Athletic.” The two other campuses that are part of the University of Illinois System, in Chicago and in Springfield, both list their athletic fees in that category. But on the U of I, Urbana’s list of student fees, the “Athletic” category is blank.
While not listing the fee may not seem like such a big deal, it is the difference between disclosing and not disclosing to the public that UI students are required to pay money to the athletic department. That could be particularly important when the U of I, Urbana signs a coach to a new multimillion-dollar contract, and the public wants to know where the athletic department money is coming from. As to why the “Athletic” category is blank, Robin Kaler, UI Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs answered, “I don’t know anything about the IBHE website.”
ONE LAST CHANCE
Whether they know about the athletic fee or not, students do have one official venue for input about their student fees: the Student Fee Advisory Committee or SFAC. SFAC consists of a majority of student members, and a few administrative members as well. The charge of the committee is to review student fees and make recommendations for any changes to the Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs.
That sounds like the perfect venue to reassess the athletic fee. But there’s a catch. SFAC is empowered to review every fee category, except one: the General Fee category, where the athletic fee resides.
According to an email from the current Associate Vice Chancellor for Student Affairs, because the General Fee consists mostly of debt service payments, “It would be inappropriate for members of SFAC to request a reduction,” he wrote. “Not meeting our financial obligations would have a significant impact in the short and long-term, including possibly downgrading our credit rating and reducing our ability for capital financing.”
But what about the opposite scenario, the very one that has taken place, where, the number of students has grown, so the amount collected from the fee is actually producing more revenue than necessary to meet the University’s debt obligations? “If a department were to collect more revenue than needed,” he replied in a follow-up email, “the University division within which they report would be responsible for assessing and addressing the issue.”
What that means is, in this case, it’s up to the athletic department to decide whether or not it wants to keep the extra money. But given the ever-escalating arms race for bigger and better stadiums and facilities that all big-time college athletic programs find themselves in, a return of any money is highly unlikely.
Chicago Sun-Times sportswriter Rick Telander puts it more bluntly. “There’s no amount of money that is too much for (an) athletic department. None.”
And so, the fee continues.
A NEW FEE SIBLING
In 2014, the original student athletic fee got a new partner: a $25 per semester student fee to help pay for a renovation of, naturally, the basketball stadium. That fee was also put to a student vote. Perhaps learning a lesson from the students’ vote against the 1997 fee, athletic department staff this time selected and trained students to lobby their fellow students for the fee, arming them with a list of talking points and nicely-produced print materials.
In a very close vote, the fee passed. Today, it too is locked safely within the walls of the General Fee, where students on the Student Fee Advisory Committee won’t ever be able to touch it. Although this time, the new fee has an expiration date – in thirty years.
The UI student athletic fees are on the lower side compared to the national average. That’s because UI is a member of the country’s wealthiest conference, the Big Ten, which currently subsidizes its teams to the tune of about $40 million per year. But for some UI students already in debt — and 66% of all college seniors in the state of Illinois graduate in debt, according to a 2015 study by the non-profit Institute for College Access and Success — that’s a small consolation.
“It’s really frustrating because there are all of these little costs that come with going to a university like this,” said current UI senior Patricia Rodriquez, a first generation college student. “For the students here who are just struggling to get by, it’s really tough.”
Jim Dey, a columnist for the Champaign News Gazette agrees. “Asking students to subsidize college sports is definitely a financial burden.”
But the fees continue.
WILL IT EVER END?
Thirty years from now, will anyone remember that the 2014 $25 student fee was supposed to sunset? Or will this fee too be shifted to pay for another athletic department expense, without anyone noticing? If past history is any indication, that’s exactly what’s bound to happen — unless someone can find a way to change course.
“Something that really needs to happen,” says former UI Student Body President Mitch Dickey, “is, let’s take a look at when these fees were created, why they were created and what … fiscal circumstances the athletic department was in and how that has changed, and what revenue share they should be paying or putting into this.”
While it might be a challenge for the UI athletic department to pick up all the expenses that students are currently paying, there’s plenty of proof that it can be done. According to a 2016 USA Today report, four of the fourteen schools in the Big Ten don’t charge any student fees for athletics.
One of those four is Purdue University. “A very small percentage … of our students can actually make it on to an intercollegiate team. Fewer than two percent,” said Mitch Daniels, Purdue’s president. “And I don’t think it’s right to tax the ninety-eight percent who won’t be able to play, many of whom aren’t that interested, to support the (athletic) program. So we draw that line here. And we’ve been able to live within it.”
And Purdue is able to do it even with the lowest total ticket revenue of all Big Ten schools in 2015-16, less than UI.
“The fact of the matter is, at some point there’s going to have to be a discussion,” agrees State Senator Scott Bennett. “At a time when faculty and staff aren’t getting raises, (when) money coming out of Springfield is less than it was before, you’re trying to figure out where you make up that money. And at the same time, athletics has additional money that they did not expect … it’s a bonus, it’s nicer seats, it’s higher paid coaches. So I think that‘s going to have to be part of the discussion, whether athletics shouldn’t (be allowed to) just take, but should also contribute some of this extra money.”
“The fact is that money is here. And I think we have to talk about the fairest way to divide that up going forward.”
That is, if anyone knows it’s there.
late follow-up: I reached out to the UI and asked why a detailed breakdown of student fees wasn’t available on the Office of the Registrar’s section of the UI website. Robin Kaler, Associate Chancellor for Public Affairs, answered: “No one knew why it wasn’t there already.” She indicated she had reached out to them to suggest adding that information.
authors note: UI is used to indicate the University of Illinois, Urbana campus.