The True Purpose of a University

The two main proponents to university life—academics and athletics—have always been at war to be the most important, so what’s the truth?

By Aaron Lynch, Front Range Community College


Last year, Colorado State University began construction of its highly controversial, new, on-campus football stadium.

CSU has traditionally been a school grounded in biological sciences and business, and while the university has had some “glory days” in athletics, most people move to Fort Collins to learn and not win a national championship.

Proponents of the stadium argued that with a more serious football team, CSU will be a bigger contender to join the (currently named) Big 10 conference–this could mean millions of dollars of additional revenue brought into the school (plus exposure).

Opponents of the project cited public disapproval, CSU’s existing stadium and an infrastructure already bursting at the seams as cons of the idea (as the stadium has been built in a central part of town).

Eventually however, the budgets were drawn, the permits were approved and the CSU Rams’ new football stadium is slated to make its debut in the fall of 2017. Many locals were left wondering at just how valuable a beefed-up football program could really be. Aren’t schools meant for academics first and athletics second?

Academics vs. Athletics and the Best Method for Building a Successful University

Image via BSN Denver

It seems natural then, that none of the top academic colleges have top athletics programs, and vice versa (with Stanford as the only exception). So, which system has more benefits and generates the most revenue? Which programs appeal to more students and have the biggest impact on their immediate community?

What’s the best route to building a successful and respected university?

1. Money

One of the biggest myths among students today is that collegiate sports are a cash cow, however the opposite is in fact true. Only around 20 programs turn a profit annually, and they’re all the schools you’re expecting; Texas, Michigan, Georgia, Florida and the like.

That’s not to say that there are not football and basketball teams that would generate profit if they stood alone, it’s just these profits aren’t enough to cover the costs of teams that don’t bring in money. Sports like field hockey and track don’t typically sell many tickets and are not known for their lucrative television deals, however they still require travel money, coaching staffs, scholarships, recruitment, equipment and the list goes on. Therefore, the athletic program as a whole is not profitable, despite a high-profile football team.

Roughly 105 universities nationwide must subsidize the remaining costs of their sports teams via student fees and endowments; they actually lose money on athletics.

Academics, on the other hand, is the main reason people go to college since a bachelor’s degree is the ideal end of being a student, and while most universities are officially “not for profit,” there’s still plenty of revenue brought in by tuition, state and federal funding as well as other auxiliary means. In turn, this money is reinvested by the school in the form of campus upgrades, research and raises.

Therefore, academics clearly generates more revenue than athletics.

2. What’s the Appeal of a University?

Academics are the reason why people go to college, and we’ve all heard of the Princeton, Harvard and Yale types of schools who offer some of the most prestigious degrees in the world. There are issues with prestige though; first, these institutions are generally cost prohibitive for the average high school graduate and second, admission to these schools is of extreme competition. I mean, who wouldn’t want a degree from Columbia? It’s simply not feasible for the vast majority of students.

Enter: Scholarships.

Academics vs. Athletics and the Best Method for Building a Successful University

Image via Pomona College

Scholarships are a great way to fund a chunk of your education costs, and can be earned through both impressive academic or athletic performance. Athletic scholarships are much more prolific however; this is because most academic scholarships are funded by third parties, while athletic scholarships are funded by the institutions themselves.

If I had a decent GPA and was being scouted for collegiate track teams (or whatever), but cost was an issue, my decision would be based on how I could pay the least amount for a still good education.

If athletic scholarships are better, then athletic schools are going to appeal more to those who need the financing (which is practically all of us). Then again, when it comes to getting a quality education for very little money, there are programs designed for affordability, such as the Fresno Pacific Organizational Leadership Degree Online, an educational institution that allows students to access a quality learning experience for practically nothing.

3. The Overall Impact of Programs

The benefits of being a student athlete truly are immense; sports promote health, respect and gritty dedication (both on and off the field), while leaving little down time to get distracted or into trouble. And it’s more than likely that athletes will carry these traits into their professional lives no matter what their career is.

School spirit is also not to be underestimated, as the outcome of football games can influence local economies and promote a sense of comradery in the community. Bashing on mutual rivals has always been a great way to bring people together.

Nevertheless, academics make a larger impact on the world by a landslide, due to the sheer number of people there for studying instead of playing sports. As it turns out, not even one in 20 students nationwide are athletes, so there is no way these players could possibly outweigh the other 20.5 million student non-athletes.

In the case of CSU, building a new stadium for the sake of making more money on the football team will probably work out for the benefit of the school; the athletic department may continue to operate at a deficit, but a more profitable football team will ultimately help bring that deficit closer to zero.

But if one was to start a new university and was wondering what system of approach to follow, tried and true academics will generate the most money and will earn your institution more respect. Athletics is something to worry about once you’re a large, established organization.

Colleges shape the future by shaping the minds of students, and at the end of the day, that should be their top priority.