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This ain't college.
It's an arms race.

By John Durham and Rachel Gadra

In recent years, college athletics has become more competitive than ever before.

Flashy, giant score boards, impressive new practice facilities and revamped stadiums can be seen all over the nation attracting potential student-athletes as well as normal students themselves.

And at the University of Georgia, the Bulldogs are keeping up with the rest of the major schools across the country in an arm’s race for college athletics that nobody wants to lose.

In just the last few months, Georgia has broken ground on an indoor practice facility that was funded entirely by private donors at a hefty price tag of $30.2 million according to the university’s 2017 Annual Report to Donors.

The price for the upcoming west end zone project in Georgia’s Sanford Stadium is even more expensive at $63 million. Additionally, the renovations to Stegeman Coliseum and the Boyd Golf Center cost close to $13 million according to The Red & Black.

$30.2 million
$5.27 million
$63 million
Three athletic facilities at the University of Georgia (the Indoor Practice Facility, Stegeman Coliseum, and Sanford Stadium) all recently received massive renovations.
(Graphics: College At All Costs)

But is it wise for Georgia and every other college in the nation to be competing in this never ending arms race as the money thrown into athletics continues to pile up or should they focus more on the whole purpose of a university: higher-level education?

According to UGA professor Kris McWhite, that depends. McWhite, who got his master’s degree and PhD in economics from Clemson University, understands like any good economist that there are a number of factors that go into big-money decisions.

When determining whether athletics or education brings back more to universities in the long-run, it’s difficult to compare the two.

“When it comes to spending, I would argue in terms of the return on investment to the university. I would probably say here...I think it’s an apples to oranges kind of comparison,” McWhite said.

McWhite expands further on his assertion seeing both sides of the argument, but focuses his thinking a bit more towards athletics and the idea of keeping up in the arms race to have the best facilities and amenities around.

After all, McWhite teaches sports economics at the University of Georgia along with microeconomics and macroeconomics.

“The primary reason for a university to exist is because of education,” McWhite said. “It’s just the uniqueness of American sports. There’s nowhere else in the world where athletics is attached to the degree like it is here.”

With any school across the United States with Division I athletic teams, it’s fair to assume that potential students who are not student athletes will submit an application to get the feeling of being on a large campus with a football or basketball team to rally around.

A college’s success in athletics, coincidentally, can also have a large effect on application submissions. McWhite used his alma mater, Clemson, as an example. After the Tigers won the national title in football over Alabama last year, admissions spiked upwards.

Another example he provided was on George Mason’s Final Four run back in 2006 , a similar increase in admissions was seen.

“It’s probably along the lines of it allows you more applicants to choose from,” McWhite said. “It allows you to skim off the top so to speak. It’s not so much it makes them better.”

In those two cases and likely many others, athletics turned out to have a strong return on the investments those colleges put into their athletic department. Only one team can win each and every year, but the advertising and marketing revenue gained from making it far in a championship season can do wonders for a university too.

“You look at it and it’s really good advertising,” McWhite said. “If your university makes the Final Four or the four team playoff, you’re going to get a lot of publicity you didn’t necessarily have to pay for directly. There’s that benefit.”

It seems like a gamble to pour money into the arms race since only a handful of teams can make it far into postseason play at a Division I level. So shouldn’t the focus be on providing a positive experience to the wide majority of the student body from an education standpoint?

For what it’s worth, Georgia has put a lot of money into construction for new school buildings and renovations for old ones.

According to the Athens-Banner Herald, the new Business Learning Center cost approximately $140 million with about half from taxpayers and half from private funding.

Baldwin Hall renovations were $7.75 million in state funds. $48 million in state support went to the new Science Learning Center.

Completed in August of 2016, the three-story, 122,500-square-foot Science Learning Center was tailor-made for with the goal of increasing the number of students who pursue careers in the STEM fields.
(Graphics: College At All Costs)
The new Business Learning Center at the University of Georgia has over 384 offices, 32 classrooms, 2 seminar rooms, a café and multiple study spaces.
(Graphics: College At All Costs)

But these new academic buildings certainly pay off in the eyes of donors. Alumni and friends gave a record $227.8 million in fiscal year 2017 in private funds to Georgia.

Deciding where Georgia puts its money at the end of the day can be a tough decision. In the 2017 fiscal year, the University of Georgia received approximately $436 million from the state of Georgia and $522 million for student in-fees and tuition.

Obviously, areas of need are addressed first, but whether or not it is a wiser decision to funnel money in an ongoing athletics arms race or to start a new academics arms race, it can be tough to tell which would bring a higher return on investment.

Well, at least for someone with a PhD in economics, it can be tough to tell.

“Turns out a lot of it right now is not conclusive, because a lot of it has to do with econometrics, the stats,” McWhite said. “The parts that I’ve seen is not clear cut right now how having an athletic program, once you account for how much money you spend on it, that there is a huge return. In some cases it might be inconclusive.”

But McWhite did admit one thing for any school in the Southeastern Conference regarding athletics.

“As it turns out, it is an arms race,” McWhite said. “You got to keep up.”