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Montana universities defend athletics’ spending, academic success

University of Montana

The Montana Board of Regents defended their campuses’ athletics programs, saying athletes are successful as students and sports teams aren’t siphoning money away from academics.

Regent Jeff Krauss, who also serves as Bozeman’s mayor, said during the regents’ meeting in Helena that some professors and members of the public have been critical after reading news reports about the $50 million sports teams brought in last year and their costs.

When people read that state campuses provided $21 million in the 2013 fiscal year for “direct institutional support,” Krauss said, they think that’s money that could have been used for instruction instead. People have complained, he added, “The state is losing a lot of money on athletics.”

University System staffers emphasized that the amount of “direct state or other government support” Montana provides for athletics is zero. The $21 million for “direct institutional support” is made up mainly of tuition waivers and scholarships, said Mick Robinson, deputy commissioner of higher education.

Last year tuition waivers and scholarships totaled nearly $13 million. When a student athlete is offered the chance to play on a team in exchange for a free education, the campus simply waives the student’s tuition payment. No cash changes hands. But under NCAA rules, tuition waivers must be reported as if they were cash, university staff members said.

Regent Chair Angela McLean said future annual reports on athletics, which generally follow NCAA guidelines, might be explained more clearly to the public with more “user-friendly” language. University of Montana President Royce Engstrom pointed out that last year his athletics program contributed $235,000 to help pay for the bonds for the Interdisciplinary Science Building. That, Engstrom said, is the opposite of the complaints Krauss has heard.

The annual athletics report found that while football made a profit last year, most sports lost money. Clay Christian, commissioner of higher education, said Montana is fortunate that football generates extra revenue, because most college football programs lose money. Most states have to put in a substantial amount to support athletics, he said.

“Athletics are well-managed in Montana,” Christian said. “Congratulations to the campuses for doing a good job. “Athletics are an important part of the campus environment. They generate enrollment, generate enthusiasm” and alumni donations, Christian said. In Montana, athletics “doesn’t dominate” campuses, despite what some people think, he added.

Montana State University President Waded Cruzado said while the graduation rate for all MSU students is around 51 percent, for student athletes it’s 80 percent. Robinson urged adding more detail to next year’s report to show the academic success of student athletes. At UM, he said, the average grade point average for athletes is 3.03, compared to 2.91 for all students. At MSU, the average GPA for athletes is 3.17.

“Not only are campuses making sure their (athletic) funds are in the black, but there is significant emphasis on student athletes in the classroom and how involved they are in the community,” Robinson said. MSU recently reported that 37 percent of its 383 athletes are in demanding science, technology, engineering or math majors, twice as many as in 2010. Last year, 23 student athletes had perfect 4.0 GPAs, 77 made the dean’s list with 3.5 GPAs and 90 had GPAs of 3.0 or better.

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