- Associated Press - Monday, December 8, 2014

ORLANDO, Fla. (AP) - Cindy Flores doesn’t go to many football or basketball games at the University of Central Florida, but she and her 60,000 or so classmates each fork over hundreds of dollars while working on their degrees to help fund the teams.

The 21-year-old also doesn’t know much about where that $171 a semester goes - a response not uncommon among students. In all, those student fees add up to more than $10 million a semester at the nation’s second-largest university.

“I would want to know what they do with that money,” Flores said of the fees, which can be used with wide latitude for things including equipment, travel and facility maintenance.

A records analysis by The Associated Press shows UCF and seven other public universities in Florida with NCAA-sanctioned teams get between 36 percent and 75 percent of their athletic funding from student athletic fees, which are among the highest in the nation. Furthermore, those fees have grown 31 percent over the past five years.

The only outliers are the state’s marquee programs, the University of Florida, which gets only 2.2 percent of revenue from fees, and Florida State University, which gets 14.5 percent from fees. Both play in conferences with monster TV contracts for football and basketball and have large football stadiums that are usually packed.

School officials say the fees are needed to fund competitive sports programs, which make universities more attractive to prospective students. However, experts say the fees, which began as a way of ensuring equal athletic opportunities for men and women, have morphed into a way to keep athletic departments solvent as they compete for revenue elsewhere.

“If you’re not driving at a university, you don’t pay a parking fee. If you don’t use the lab, you don’t pay a fee. Maybe there should be a choice for students who don’t want to pay an athletics fee. Maybe somehow it can be legislated,” said Jeff Smith, an economics professor at the University of South Carolina Upstate, who studies trends in athletic subsidies and student debt. “Schools created the problem, but they’re not trying to fix it.”

Similar fees are collected at schools nationwide, even though only 20 of the 128 programs in the NCAA’s top tier of college football - the Football Bowl Subdivision - reported a profit in 2013. Last week, the University of Alabama at Birmingham became the first NCAA school since 1995 to cut its football program, saying keeping it would cost the school $49 million over the next five years.

In Florida, student athletic fees are collected on a per-credit basis. Increases must be approved by a committee, with half the members being students. With the exception of UF and FSU, those fees typically range between $350 and $480 per academic year.

In 2009, Florida schools collected more than $76 million in athletic fee revenue; that increased to nearly $100 million for the fiscal year that ended in June 2013, the most recent year reported to the NCAA and Department of Education.

The extra money has allowed for recognizable growth and on-field success in some cases. One of the most notable examples is UCF’s football team - which moved to the NCAA’s top division in 1996. That move helped UCF attract private donations to build an on-campus football stadium, which Florida Atlantic and Florida International have also done recently. Last year, the Knights won the Fiesta Bowl and finished with a Top 10 national ranking for the first time.

But those successes are largely the exception, and it hasn’t stopped student subsidies from increasing statewide. At UCF, nearly half of its $41 million in sports revenues came out of students’ pockets in 2013. In return, the students get free entry to every UCF athletic event. Those subsidies are unlikely to end anytime soon, said UCF athletic director Todd Stansbury.

“But we are very cognizant that they are a significant donor to our program. So we treat them like our No. 1 donor,” he said.

Athletic directors say they need the money to remain competitive or, in some cases, to build budding programs. The University of West Florida is fielding a Division II football team in 2016, which athletic director Dave Scott will be a boon beyond the athletic department.

“We’re not only adding football, but adding the number of scholarships we hand out … it will help us grow that base (enrollment) number, which not only helps raise our programs, but other programs around the university.”

The University of North Florida and Florida Gulf Coast University don’t have football programs, which can be a money drain. Both were established relatively recently and don’t have the same resources of some older and larger institutions.

“For us being young Division I school with not a lot of outside resources - we are just establishing our athletic tradition and fan base,” said Lee Moon, the athletic director at North Florida.

Not everyone buys that argument. Athletic fees aren’t necessarily a bad thing, but they’re too high considering schools aren’t controlling tuition costs or meeting revenue expectations, said David Ridpath, the president-elect of the Drake Group, an academic and college athletics watchdog organization.

“It is essentially a dog chasing its tail,” Ridpath said. “We believe that we must spend to remain competitive. We take on more debt and expenses and have a fear that it we don’t spend everything we can then our entire institution will suffer.”

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