Students pay an athletic fee at Western Carolina that is almost as much as tuition. Why is that?
Alex Gary was excited to return to Western Carolina University in 2020 to be the athletics director, 19 years after he first arrived as a student in Cullowhee to play baseball. When he took a tour to get reacquainted with the campus, a few things surprised him.
“The dorm that I was in in 2003 wasn't even here anymore,” Gary said.
He looked around and saw new cafeterias, new dorms, and multi-million dollar academic buildings.
“And on the athletic campus, literally, nothing had changed. Nothing,” Gary said.
Except that some athletics buildings had fallen into disrepair.
“In Camp Gym, in particular, if you walk through that facility, there are holes in the floor,” Gary said. “They're hazards.”
The Cordelia Camp gym is built on a floodplain. There’s water damage in the Jordan-Phillips Field House. At the E.J. Whitmire football stadium, the foundation has cracks and the boxes for press and visitors aren’t handicap accessible. The electrical and plumbing systems in some athletic buildings are beyond useful life.
The university has tried to assess the costs.
“We had a facility master plan done about two years ago, they said we had about $153 million worth of investments that we needed to make,” Gary said.
Gary has worked in athletics and development at several large state schools. He knows some universities will spend big bucks on shiny new stadiums to woo top athletes. He says that’s not what this is about.
“We're not necessarily just trying to pretty things up, we're trying to get the bones in some of these facilities where they need to be,” Gary said.
WCU isn't alone
In North Carolina, state funds cannot be used to support athletics at public universities.
“Everything that we do has to either be raised through philanthropy, sponsorship agreements, kind of self-generated revenue, or student fees,” Gary said.
Gary said more than half his total budget for the athletics department is supported by student fees.
He said it's not feasible for him to fundraise the full cost of the $153 million facility plan, so he wants to raise $60 million to fix the most dire needs. Gary hopes to raise half that cost from philanthropy and half through a plan to raise student fees for a few years to finance loans.
Last week, the UNC System Board of Governors approved requests from several universities to raise certain student fees, including the athletics fee at Western Carolina and four other institutions.
The board placed narrow parameters on which fee increases it would consider, and in the same meeting voted to hold tuition for in-state students flat across the UNC System for the 6th year in a row.
Only one board member, Thom Goolsby, voted against the fee increases, but over the course of several meetings on the topic other members also expressed hesitation at putting more financial burden on students. The chair of the board’s budget and finance committee Jim Holmes has called the fee increases “unsustainable.”
With the higher fee now approved, students at WCU next year will pay an annual athletics fee of $868. Because Western Carolina is part of the NC Promise program that caps tuition at $500 per semester, the athletics fee is nearly a year's worth of tuition.
“Yeah, well, isn't that interesting,” said Andrew Zimbalist, an economist at Smith College who specializes in the economics of sports.
“The notion that you pay $500, for the courses that you take (per semester), and you pay $800 for the opportunity, perhaps to go to a basketball game that you probably won't go to anyway, is ironic, to say the very least,” Zimbalist said.
Western Carolina is one of five schools in the UNC System that's raising its athletics fee next year. Thirteen of North Carolina’s public universities already charge more than $750 for this fee.
Zimbalist said these rates are not surprising, given the limited sources of revenue for NCAA Division II and smaller Division I university athletics programs.
“Basically, their revenue doesn't come from television, it doesn't come from corporate sponsorships. It comes from ticket sales,” Zimbalist said.
Ticket sales have been way down during the pandemic. Only UNC-Chapel Hill and NC State have significant TV deals. The schools charge students $279 and $232 in annual athletics fees, respectively.
“I wish that we could only charge a $250 student fee like NC State and UNC do,” Gary said. “Unfortunately, the demand for our product from a national television perspective is not what those schools are.”
To pay for renovations, Gary had to convince students and a majority of the UNC System Board of Governors to support a fee increase.
Western Carolina’s student body president Rebecca Hart changed her mind to ultimately support the fee. Hart has served on the university’s tuition and fee committee for several years and has voted on proposed fee raises in the past.
“Historically, I've been against it, because we already have a pretty high athletics fee,” Hart said. “It's also a fee that most students really, really hate.”
This year she took a tour of the athletics facilities.
“Hearing the facilities needed help was one thing, but then when I went and visited it, I was like, ‘There's no way we are recruiting student athletes, and then having them train in these facilities.’”
She felt something needed to happen, and her fellow student leaders agreed. The student senate unanimously passed a resolution to support the fee increase.
“Then every student on the tuition and fee committee voted yes for the athletic fee, which is unheard of,” Hart said.
Now that the Board of Governors has also approved the fee, Gary says his next step is to raise the other half needed through philanthropy.
The board says it will continue to discuss the challenges of funding athletic programs to try to find a more sustainable solution.