College Athletics: Public Institutions Are the Real Sham

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College Athletics: Public Institutions Are the Real Sham

October 2, 2015

Auburn University has made headlines at outlets like the Wall Street Journal, USA Today, and, recently, Mises.org for reversing the elimination of the public administration major because of pressure from the athletics department. Athletics covertly moved to save it because a disproportionate number of student-athletes were stacked in the major, apparently for the easier courses so they could focus on their sport with less academic distraction.

Most view this as a corrupt move, and an indictment against university administration for prioritizing athletics over academics. Others take a contrarian stance, arguing that college athletes should be able to focus on their sport, especially for potential employment at the professional level, even if “sham majors” like public administration at Auburn is how that happens.

This contrarian stance was taken by Matthew Doarnberger in his Mises Daily article, “College Athletes Embrace the Division of Labor.” I agree with many of Mr. Doarnberger’s points —college athletes should be able to focus on their sport while in school, and in an ideal world, universities and amateur athletics would be more clearly separated so that issues like sham majors and joke classes don’t arise in the first place.

Unfortunately, the issue at Auburn University with the public administration major (and I assume elsewhere with other majors) is more complicated than “sham majors are ok because it helps athletes focus on their game and increase their chances to gain professional employment.”

The public administration major at Auburn was deemed inadequate from a purely academic standpoint. The official curriculum review committee decided this without any regard to the extra-curricular activities of the students enrolled in that major. The curriculum is not the same thing as the students, and it was the curriculum that was on trial. The committee made this decision in their role as quasi-entrepreneurs guessing that Auburn students demand a valuable degree that reflects hard work and actual learning.

It was only after this decision that the athletics department starting pushing people around and waving large amounts of money in front of bureaucrats’ faces to save the program.

So the issue isn’t whether or not we should have sham majors in state schools with big athletics programs, it’s whether or not (or to what extent) unhampered markets are in place. If they are, prices, profit, and loss can guide resource allocation instead of the arbitrary whims of low-level government bureaucrats (i.e., public university administrators).

What would happen at a totally privately owned and operated Auburn University? The owners of the university would create and eliminate academic programs in the same way a restaurant might add and remove menu items. Consumer demand for certain curricula would determine the tuition, and these revenues for the university would determine their demand for the faculty, equipment, course design, and classroom space for a given curriculum.

Students would demand that their degree mean something, and so easy majors might hurt overall revenue for the school as students choose other universities with degrees that reflect harder work and more learning.

Students may also demand athletics programs, either for themselves because they like to play or because they like rooting for a team. A private Auburn could recruit students or even hire athletes outright to play on the school teams, and, keeping with student demands for a meaningful degree, offer lighter course loads for student-athletes while their sport is in season.

This might mean those student-athletes take longer to graduate, but it would be up to the student to decide, and the longer time spent in school would be offset by earning a wage from the school during that time. Another option might involve allowing student-athletes to simply major in the sport they play, with an eye toward playing professionally outside of school or other employment associated with the professional sport (coaching, business, equipment design, etc.).

In contrast to this system in which all decisions face a strict profit and loss test, we have today institutions that do not respond to consumer demand and have to secretly compensate student-athletes in corrupt ways. Instead of providing a menu of majors strictly based on what students want, public universities covertly toss in sham majors for athletes that devalue the degrees of graduates and make the otherwise innocent student-athletes look dumb and corrupt when the secret arrangements are made public (so there are victims).

Arguing for or against sham majors in public universities is like arguing for more or fewer park rangers in national parks. Or different colored USPS uniforms. Or public roads made out of one material and not another. We just can’t know what is most appropriate because profit and loss signals are absent when the government is involved.

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