Low Income Pays For Luxury

11/03/2017 02:30 pm ET Updated Nov 22, 2017

Part Four of Four

Imagine this: MAP grants, money from the state given specifically to help low income students pay for college, being used to pay for building luxury boxes at the U of I’s Memorial Stadium and State Farm Center.

Sound ridiculous?

It’s not. Because it’s true.

That’s just one of the findings of a multi-year investigation into the ways in which the University of Illinois, Urbana (UI) finances its athletic department.

So how could this happen?

The Monetary Award Program, or MAP grants are funds provided by the state of Illinois to help the state’s low-income students pay for college. It is an entirely need-based program; there are no additional qualifications other than the financial need of the students and their families.

Each year, as part of the budgeting process, the legislature determines how much total MAP money will be appropriated. The total pot of MAP money is limited -- once it runs out, it’s out, regardless of how many students are still in need. And as tuition and fees at UI, as well as Illinois’ other public universities, have continued to rise, the need for MAP grants has grown.

“We give the money until there’s no money left,” said State Senator Scott Bennett, whose district includes UI, “and there’s still people with their hands out (who need) that money.”

But where do the luxury boxes come in?

According to Dan Mann, the director of financial aid at UI, MAP money is restricted to paying for tuition and fees. The students receive their semester bills, and “those charges are all put on an account that is in the student’s name,” he said.

The student’s bill includes charges for all mandatory fees, which includes the General Fee. Inside the General Fee are the fees used for paying off the loans for the renovations of the football and basketball stadiums, which were used for building luxury suites and premium seating. Think of it like a Russian doll of fees, each one nested inside another.

According to Mann, the student’s university bill then works just like a credit card bill. Payments don’t go towards specific items; they simply lower the total amount owed. When students receive financial aid, it works just like any other payment. “The financial aid they receive is put against that account,” said Mann.

So when MAP grants come in, the money is used to pay for everything -- athletic stadium renovations included.

“The problem … is, that means that money which I think everybody assumes is going toward the cost of tuition would also go in some part to those fees which include athletic facilities,” said State Senator Scott Bennett. “I think that would really surprise legislators who really fight for this money.”

Of course, the new suites and premium seating serve a purpose other than just allowing a few fans to sit in luxury. They also generate additional revenue through their sales. But that revenue doesn’t go to the university; it all goes to athletics. Athletics then uses the additional revenue to hire more staff, pay coaches more money, and build and remodel even more facilities. Which then, they hope, generates even more revenue, all of which again goes to athletics.

And round and round it goes.

Many people argue that these improvements help the teams win more games, which in turn, they say, will produce more money for the university by way of increased donations. But that’s a myth that was long ago debunked by researchers. “The studies we have on it do not sustain a clear relationship between athletic success and donations (to the institution),” said Andrew Zimbalist, a professor of sports economics at Smith College.

But there are aspects of the renovations that do provide something for the students. Everyone, students and non-students alike, shares in the enjoyment of new scoreboards, more concession stands, and in the case of the basketball stadium, new seats throughout. But in order to take advantage of those benefits, which every student is paying for, a student has to buy a ticket to a game.

In other words, students have to spend more money to get any benefit from the money they are already being forced to spend.

That creates an additional hurdle for MAP grant recipients. “If they can’t pay for their own tuition, or at least they’re eligible for MAP,” said State Senator Scott Bennett, “they’re the least likely to actually have any money to go to athletic events.”

So how much MAP money are we talking about here? Calculating that is a little tricky and requires making a few assumptions. As economist Zimbalist said in a 2015 Washington Post story, it isn’t as simple as saying, “when I bought my ticket to see the Maryland game, (my money) went to coaches’ salary, but when you bought a ticket, it paid the tutors.”

To determine how much MAP money is going toward the stadium renovations, Zimbalist recommends splitting all the expenses proportionally: whatever percentage of the student’s total tuition and fee costs are going to athletic fees, that’s the percentage of every MAP dollar that goes towards those fees.

Complicating the calculations further is the fact that in-state tuition is different depending on the student’s major. But, skipping over the nitty-gritty math details (the more mathematically inclined will find them below*), using the numbers from 2016-17, the total amount of MAP funds that went to support athletics that year was approximately $300,000.

So why is this a problem? One reason is that about half of all students eligible for need-based tuition help from MAP funds didn’t receive it due to a lack of available MAP money, according to a study by the Partnership for College Completion using 2014 data. In short, more MAP money is needed and every dollar spent on non-essential college expenses would help.

Of course, you could do the same sort of calculations and detail how much MAP money is going to every other fee, and then critique those too. But there is a big difference between every other student fee and the athletic fees: the athletic fees go to pay for things that aren’t primarily, if at all, for students’ use.

“We’re pushing for MAP grants, we’re fighting for the university to keep its tuition low, and now we’re saying, once you get there, you’re still going to have debt that has to go to make sure the doctors in town and other people can sit in the luxury boxes,” said State Senator Scott Bennett. “I think that (leaves) a bad taste in everybody’s mouth.”

Author’s note: UI is used to indicate the University of Illinois, Urbana campus

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For more information about THE MULTIMILLION-DOLLAR HEAD FAKE (www.theheadfake.org)

Part One of the series

Part Two of the series

Part Three of the series

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* THE MATH (all based on academic year 2016-17 numbers)

In-state tuition varies between $12,036 for base tuition, to $17,040 for highest cost programs. The average then is $14,538.

Mandatory fees = $3,832.

Total tuition and fees = $18,370; Fees = 20.9% of total.

Students pay $68 in fees towards Memorial Stadium, and $212.30 towards the State Farm Center. However, the State Farm Center is a shared facility; only half of it is for athletics. Therefore only half of the State Farm Center Fees, $106.15, are used in the calculation.

Total fees towards athletics = $68 + $106.15 = $174.15 = 4.5% of total fees.

$30 million in MAP grant funds were provided to UI.

Total MAP grants to athletics (2016-17) = $282,150

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