WE'VE NEVER been a nation that allows the dissonance between our words and actions to slow us down, so perhaps we should look at Temple's proposed football stadium less as an unnecessary vanity project with the potential to metastasize into a full-blown money pit and more as a monument to the indomitable nature of the American spirit. Take, for example, the following sequence that seems to have occurred inside a campus boardroom earlier this week:
1) A majority of those in attendance agreed that a financial-aid budget deficit that had ballooned from $9 million to $22 million was an issue serious enough to warrant the removal of the president responsible for said budget.
2) A majority of those in attendance agreed that they no longer had confidence in said president's ability to lead the school into the future.
3) A majority of those in attendance agreed that it was a sensible move to tack on another $250,000 to the $1.25 million already spent in pursuit of an on-campus football stadium that was one of the leading items on the agenda of the man in whom they agreed they no longer had confidence.
Those with a vested interest in getting a new stadium built will likely tell you that the issues are not at all related, but those with vested interests in things tend to prefer a pre-Copernican view of the macroeconomic universe, in which everything revolves around them. The reality is that even the church of the boardroom is bound by the opportunity cost theory and the substitution principle: Every $250,000 spent on things related to football stadiums is $250,000 that can't be spent on other things, and those other things must then be paid for with another $250,000 built into the budget. If that budget is funded almost entirely by tax and tuition dollars, then who is really paying for the stadium? If you aren't a vested interest and you refuse to yield this point, then you're a sucker, because at least the vested interests are getting something tangible out of the deal instead of some small sliver of potential reflected glory. The numbers they give you to regurgitate are calculated for regurgitation purposes only.
Take the University of Houston's TDECU Stadium, which went from a projected cost of $105 million to $120 million to $128 million before it opened, and even now, nearly two years after it hosted its first game, the school's administrators haven't provided the public with the final price tag. Those administrators did escape discipline after an auditor in the university system decided that they had not illegally used $5 million that had been reserved exclusively for academics because the $5 million in question went toward a part of the stadium used by the marching band, which is not an athletic program. This, per the Texas Tribune. Yay. Go, academics!
Football stadiums won't be the downfall of the higher education system any more than any of the other incremental capital outlays that have quickly turned this nation's college campuses into residential teen-aged amusement parks that greedily exploit the shortsighted, societally normalized, federally funded spending decisions of impulsive teenagers and their beleaguered and often underinformed co-signers.
We as a country have spent the last couple of years working ourselves up into a lather about stagnating middle-class wages, the exploding cost of higher education and the disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street. This week, Temple approved a 2.8 percent tuition increase. If this year's middle-class income is anything like previous years' middle class income, it will not have grown by 2.8 percent by the time the new school year rolls around. That means the average middle-class family paying for college just got poorer. If you were to plot the annual cost of college attendance on one line and the average income of a college-attending family on another, the space between the two would keep getting larger as the X axis kept extending into the future. That is not sustainable. At some point in our extrapolated future, four years of college ends up costing more than the 40 years of increased earnings a degree is supposed to provide. That point is called bankruptcy, also known as the point where an individual takes a hard look at his or her financial decision-making over the years and starts to identify things he or she probably could have done without. Like, say, a college with a Division I football program and a fancy on-campus stadium.
Fact: Temple included $26 million for intercollegiate athletics in its most recent operating budget proposal.
Fact: At Temple and most other schools, intercollegiate athletics produce annual revenue that falls millions of dollars short of the money the schools spend on them.
Fact: Temple's football program does not pay for itself, and lots of other new football stadiums built by schools like Temple have failed to pay for themselves, because, in addition to the hundreds of millions of dollars it costs to build the thing, a new football stadium costs millions more each year to operate and maintain.
Fact: The man who oversaw the numbers-crunching for Temple's new football stadium is the same man who oversaw the numbers-crunching that, according to his board, saw a $9 million deficit turn into a $22 million deficit in one year.
Conclusion: Full speed ahead?