ATHENS – When students start classes next month at UGA, in addition to room and board they will owe the school something called “mandatory fees.” Adding up to more than $1,000, those fees include $53 per student, which goes to the athletics department.
The fee, which is owed in the spring semester as well, was instituted last decade. In that time, UGA’s athletics department has been raking in more money every year, thanks to the SEC’s economic growth. Last year the athletics department had revenues of about $116 million, and expenses of about $96.6 million.
That inevitably leads to the question: Do UGA students still need to subsidize their athletics department to the tune of just over $3 million per year?
Yes, says athletics director Greg McGarity.
“Well, I think if you see our budget this year, it’s a balanced budget. We’d have to make up a $3 million hole somewhere,” McGarity said. “That’s pretty tough to overcome.”
But Ryan Scates, a UGA graduate who was on the school’s athletic board a few years ago, said it’s probably time for it go.
“At its core the Athletic Association should exist to add to the student experience, not to use them as a captive audience to fleece mandatory fees,” Scates, who was on the athletic board during the 2012-13 school year, wrote in an e-mail. “I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t do something about this when I could.”
The school sees it as basically a trade-off: Students pay the mandatory fee, $106 per year, but get reduced prices to football games (only $8 a ticket) and free to all other events, including men’s basketball game.
Of course, there are students who have zero interest in athletics (believe it or not). It works the other way too: There are students who never participate in intramurals but still have to pay the $15-per-semester rate, and some never use campus transportation, but still owe $116 per semester for transportation.
Still, the economic growth of the SEC, and the boon to Georgia because of it, makes the athletic fee stand out.
Last year, Georgia and every other SEC school received $32.7 million as part of its annual payout. It was $31.2 million the prior year. Back in 2009, it was only $11 million per school. This year’s payout won’t be announced until next month, but it’s again expected to be a record amount.
So what’s the need to continue to charge the student fee at all?
“If I’ve got a $3 million hole there, I’ve either got to cut $3 million out of my budget (or do something else). So it’s a huge part of our revenue source,” McGarity said.
But UGA also projects that – even after increasing spending on football and the indoor athletic facility – it will have more than $63 million in its reserve fund at the end of this fiscal year. Couldn’t the student fee be waived and the $3 million be made up for by dipping into the reserve fund?
“That’d be like you or me going into our 401k,” McGarity said. “We don’t want to do that.”
The student fees result in the second-largest known subsidy of any SEC school, according to USA Today. Auburn, which receives a $4.3 million subsidy, is the only one with more. (Vanderbilt’s numbers, as a private school, are not known.) Six SEC schools don’t receive a subsidy at all.
Student attendance has actually been a frustration for many at Georgia. They often don’t sell out their 16,000 allotment. When Scates was on the board he helped organize a Young Alumni program, allowing recently graduated students to buy up some of those unsold student tickets.
So what about finding $3 million somewhere else and letting in students for free for football games?
“That’s 16,000 seats right there,” McGarity said. “You can’t be all things to all people. Our financial model has to work.”
The Student Government Association is in the process of examining the mandataory fees, concerned that they “add up,” according to SGA president Houston Gaines. And most are probably unaware that they even subsidize the athletic department – but may not necessarily mind.
“I would guess a large majority would be okay with it,” Gaines said. “Because 18,000 students on average are registering for football tickets.”
That said, Gaines also says the riches of UGA’s athletic program would probably give others pause.
“It’s something to think about,” Gaines said. “We’ll have conversations with the athletic department to say: Is this really necessary?”