The Cost of Athletic Retention

A $0.25 student activity fee increase worth an estimated $85,000 and approved over the summer by university officials for student athletics but not brought to the student body for a vote has raised concerns with the University of Central Oklahoma Student Association.

The fee was implemented for Fiscal Year 2019 to primarily address a gap between current tuition rates and the amount of scholarship dollars available for athletic tuition waivers. While addressed in the University Planning Council meetings over the summer, UCOSA President Remington Dean said that he felt it was a mistake not to have taken it to the student body for a vote.

“It really felt like they overlooked the students in this process and they didn’t get the student opinion,” Dean said. “What I also do not agree with is that there has been no explanation to the students for the increase.”

With between 500 and 550 student-athletes on campus, student-athletes account for roughly 3 percent of the estimated 17,000 students attending UCO. Dean said that earmarking the entire $0.25 increase for athletics without consulting the student body creates a troubling precedent.

“I didn’t agree with the process that it went through; I think there was a lack of student input and I just think that UCO is at a pivotal point in its career, seeing that we are about to get a new president,” Dean said.

With the addition of $0.25, students now pay $14.50 per credit hour for student activities on campus. These fees go to pay for campus events sponsored by the university’s more than 200 student organizations, as well as the majority of the operational funding for the university’s athletics department.

There are no specific university policies governing student activity fee increases, however, these increases are discussed during the UPC meetings, according to Kevin Freeman, UCO’s vice president of Operations.

These meetings include representatives from faculty, staff and the student body, represented by UCOSA. While Dean was absent for the UPC meetings held over the summer, UCOSA’s Chair of Congress Tate Atkinson and Vice Chair Jordan Medaris did attend on behalf of the student body.

During these meetings, Atkinson said that he was concerned that the administration had skipped steps that should have been taken to ensure adequate representation from the student body.

“At the UPC meetings, it seemed like it was that Kevin was not coming to us to get our weigh-in on it, it was almost to just inform us about what was going to happen,” Atkinson said.

Previous student activity fee increases had gone before a vote with the student body and had been included on the ballot as part of UCOSA’s annual spring elections. However, Freeman said there is no policy to have the increases voted on by the student body and that increases are implemented at the discretion of the university’s president.

“There is no policy or formal process for doing this; it is really done at the discretion of the president,” Freeman said. “With that said, the normal process would be to involve our student leaders on campus, representatives of the student body, that they understand and support the need for the student activity fee increase.

The last two increases, a $3 increase in both 2013 and 2014, were implemented in part to help fund improvements to UCO’s athletic structures, according to Freeman. While previous increases mostly went to athletic funding, the FY2019 increase differs from previous increases in that the entirety of the increase is earmarked for athletics.

Distribution of student activity fees has been divided into approximately 45 percent for student affairs and 55 percent for athletics for at least the last decade. For athletics, the fee goes to fund athletic tuition waivers, academic advisement, operating costs and other expenditures for each athletic team.

While Dean said this change to only funding athletics creates a concerning lack of representation for the majority of the student body, the distribution has existed by design rather than an established policy, according to Freeman.

“What makes this one unusual is that we’re really fixing a broken funding mechanism,” Freeman said. “We weren’t asking for additional fees for something new, we were trying to fix a problem.”

Freeman said the reason for this year’s increase is to address the growing gap between the existing funding available for athletic tuition waivers and the tuition rates that have increased over the last 10 years. 

While tuition increased by 5.5 percent for FY2019 alone, student activity fees have not been raised since 2014, a situation that has left many student athletes with tuition waivers that do not provide adequate financial support, according to Freeman.

“This [increase] was so small in dealing with a crisis-type of a situation, we handled it differently this time than we might have were it a larger increase,” Freeman said.

Meetings over the following year’s budgetary allocations and the need for any tuition or fee increases typically begin in early February. When asked why athletic fees were not addressed earlier in the budgetary process, Freeman said there were no reasons why the university did not take earlier steps to address the “crisis-type of a situation.”

“There’s no underlying reason why we didn’t engage them earlier in the conversation,” Freeman said. “A lot of it is working through as you’re looking at what your potential increases are going to be in the following year.”

Athletics Director Eddie Griffin said he is unsure about concerns over a lack of student representation in the student activity fee process, but he feels the university made the right decision in approving the increase.

“I think that’s just something you sit down and evaluate and see what the true needs are and what’s best for the university,” Griffin said.

In addition to the tuition waivers, Griffin said the increase would also sponsor funding for the increased athletic academic advisement facilities that is housed in the new Sports Performance Center. The SPC has allowed for an athletic advisement office, which houses three dedicated athletic academic advisors.

With approximately 500 student-athletes, having three academic advisors would place the department with a ratio of 166 students per academic advisor. This ratio is significantly higher than the university’s overall, which was estimated at 1,500 students per academic advisor in 2017, three times the state’s average of 500 students per academic advisor.

With 19 national championships awarded to the university, Griffin said that maintaining adequate funding is vital for a competitive athletic program. While academics are important, Griffin said that athletic programs significantly impact public perception of a given university.

“That’s kind of what we want to sell [in] the marketplace is that there are great things going on at UCO academically and athletically, and athletics is the front porch of marketing that,” Griffin said.

However, athletics are not the only program funded by student activity fees that could benefit from student funding, according to Dean. Funding for UCOSA’s Uber program was slashed by approximately $30,000 for FY2019 due to a decrease in state funding and enrollment.

While the program barely managed to sustain itself with $70,000 through April, before UCOSA had to borrow high-impact funding to finish the school year. At somewhere around $40,000, Dean said the program will run out sometime in early spring.

“We had a significant drop to the Uber program and now we’re having to start this discussion in August of what are we going to be doing in February when funding is out,” Dean said. “So now it’s not that we’re running out in April, we’ll be running out in February and [we have to discuss] how we’re going to cover the last few months of school.”

While Dean said it was undeniable that athletics needed the funding due to the growing gap between tuition aid and tuition costs, he said the lack of transparency or explanation to the student body is concerning as well.

UCOSA is considering legislation that will ensure the SAF fee is split with a dedicated student activity fee and an athletic fee to make it clear how much students are paying for athletics on campus.

“If UCO truly is a school that prides itself on being one of the most affordable colleges, not only in Oklahoma, but in the nation, well, increasing tuition, increasing student activity fees, increasing every fee, pretty soon we’re going to out price ourselves,” Dean said.

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