Wednesday, November 12, 2008

The Gathering Storm

So much for petty cash

The United States is facing a deep recession. I'm not one of those people comparing our situation to the Great Depression, but a prolonged economic downturn like the one we saw through most of the 1970's seems very likely.

America's colleges and universities face hard times as a result. Tuitions have skyrocketed almost in tandem with house prices over the last 40 years, and like most homeowners and mortgage lenders, the schools became addicted to those tuition revenues and the "high living" and expansionist policies they paid for.

Now, everyone in higher education is talking about cutbacks. Even the richest school in the world, Harvard, recently warned that budget cuts may be on the way.

From my own point of view, I just don't see how the Ivies or any other school will be able to continue charging $40,000 or $50,000 per year in tuition and other costs in this new economy. A huge number of parents paid those tuition bills in the past with the kinds of home equity loans and second mortgages that have suddenly disappeared. I am not one of those people who think house prices will start soaring again anytime soon. The era of using your home as an ATM is probably gone forever.

Also gone are the easy-to-get student loans from folks like Sallie Mae. It was never easy to pay back those loans, but I don't recall having to do much to GET them other than prove I was a student. I paid off my last bill from Sallie Mae in the summer of 2007, 13 years after I completed grad school. I'm not sure I could get such a loan with such a long period to pay it back today.

I think American private colleges will have to cut tuition prices or prepare for massive drops in enrollment in the near future, period.

Will Ivy sports suffer because of all of this? It's hard to see how it won't. But a few budget cuts and maybe some lost prospects due to financial aid problems are something I can live with. What I'm more worried about is the inevitable calls from certain groups to cut out varsity athletics altogether because of the financial crisis.

Make no mistake, there will be such calls. And supporters of Ivy football in particular must be ready to refute them. Football is the most expensive sport to maintain in college, and it will be a natural target.

I could list all the purely financial reasons why football is worth it, even in the Ivies. But you can find them by simply reading this blog's archives. But I will add one new piece of information I have come to learn in the last few years, and that is that Ivy football alums are, on average, much more financially successful than the non-athlete Ivy alums. They also tend to be more generous with their donations and their time when it comes to alumni events and initiatives. These events are usually tied to football or basketball in some way, but the other sports are represented as well. Doing anything to downgrade or cutback drastically on football would make the financial situation worse throughout the league.

No one is saying that Columbia or any other school should eliminate the English department to save football. But I am saying that such a choice is not even relevant. There will be some hard choices to make in the coming years, but only extreme anti-athletics activists would be crazy enough to suggest that football or another sport actually creates a huge drag on academics even in the leanest of times.

It's time to prepare for these arguments that will probably first appear in the student newspapers and then in the regular media. Those who wish to destroy athletics cannot be allowed to profit from the hard times all America is facing and is about to face.


At Wed Nov 12, 10:11:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Jake, Columbia needs the Ivy League more than the Ivy League needs Columbia. We need to keep football if we want to stay in the Ivies. I have been a generous contributor to the College for many years. If we drop football I drop Columbia.

At Thu Nov 13, 12:14:00 AM GMT+7, Blogger cathar said...

Albeit respectfully, I think this item is a piece of fevered alarmism. And the last thing I'd ever expect to see from any college, especially an elite one, is a drop in the cost of tuition. If only because professors and buildings and grounds personnel alike have families and like to eat too.

At Thu Nov 13, 09:20:00 PM GMT+7, Anonymous Anonymous said...

Beware efforts by the administration to fold GS into the College. Awn, the Dean of GS, is bad news and wants to turn the College into something that none of us would recognize in terms of student selectivity, etc.


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