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How the NCAA Can Pay It Forward

The dollars raised by athletic departments can be put toward financial aid for other students.

This article originally appeared in U.S. News & World Report on Nov. 14, 2014.

By Daniel Linzer

Millions of high school seniors around the country will contemplate applying early admission to hundreds of U.S. colleges and universities in the next few weeks. The decision is based on a number of factors, including, of course, affordability. Meanwhile, the Obama administration is contemplating the next steps for a ranking system launching in 2015 that will rate schools on their affordability, student debt and employability after graduation.

Clearly, one of the most discussed issues in higher education today is the affordability of an undergraduate education. But another equally debated issue is the big business of Division I athletics.

What if these issues were linked? Perhaps at least part of a solution would then emerge.

The enormous growth of revenue in athletics has led to the arms race of higher salaries for coaches and more and more glamorous sports complexes. Revenue growth has been driven by the vast appetite of the American television viewing public for live college sports, and that is not likely to change. The networks have been thrilled to meet that demand, and to reap the higher fees from pay television providers. Much of that money comes back to athletics departments.

If the pressure of all that money stays primarily in athletics departments, then the limited number of outlets means higher salaries and five-star playing fields. Even if the current legal challenges by student-athletes have been framed around other issues, the focus of the debate on the few sports that raise revenue makes it clear that these efforts are also very much about creating additional outlets for all that money.

The most prominent option under discussion is whether or not to pay student athletes. But that may not align with the mission of institutions that prioritize the student in student-athlete.

The driving question, then, is if athletic income could be put towards undergraduate financial aid for students other than varsity athletes. The few universities that generate large surpluses in their athletics budget may already do this, as they only need to spend just a bit more on athletics than rival institutions that do not have such a surplus. The rest of the funds might then be available to address other institutional needs.

We might agree with this approach works, recognizing that America has a capitalistic and competitive system that for the most part works quite well. But we also have a system of progressive taxation to level the playing field.

So why not consider a similar taxation system for Division I athletics? If an athletics program produces large revenues, then it moves into a higher tax bracket, with the taxes going into the general financial aid budget of that university. An institution with more modest athletics revenue would be in a lower tax bracket; those with minimal revenue might have no tax.

With all the other reforms being considered for the NCAA, what if to be a member of the NCAA, institutions needed to comply with a progressive taxation system? That would help turn athletics into the solution for college affordability at many institutions.

That result would make many of us cheer on our teams even more.

- Daniel Linzer is provost at Northwestern University.

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