The amount of money the University of Kentucky spent on each athlete grew more than 10 times faster than the amount it spent to educate each student in recent years, according to a new study.
General academic spending per student rose 5 percent from 2005 to 2011 at UK, while sports spending per athlete rose 58 percent, according to a database released Wednesday by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics.
Unlike all other public universities in Kentucky, UK's athletics department is financially self-sustaining, so its spending does not reduce the pot of money available for academics. But UK's financial picture is similar to most Division 1 Football Bowl Subdivision schools, where athletic spending per athlete grew 58 percent and academic spending per student increased 24 percent.
Knight officials said they want the database to increase transparency in college spending and highlight trends in academic and athletic spending.
"College athletics has the potential for so much good, but the current trajectory of spending is unsustainable," said William E. "Brit" Kirwan, chancellor of the University System of Maryland and co-chairman of the commission. "We already see levels of spending at some universities that require them to divert substantial resources from their core academic responsibilities. We are hopeful this online database will help university leaders and policymakers develop practices and policies that bring better balance to athletic expenditures within the broader institutional missions."
In Kentucky, public universities have suffered from a decrease in state funding brought on by the 2008 financial crisis, but athletic departments were seemingly unaffected.
At UK in 2011, athletics spending per athlete averaged $170,103, including NCAA scholarships. The average academic spending per student was $14,798, according to the database.
In football, which the Knight Commission focused on because of its huge impact, spending per scholarship player increased 80 percent at UK during the six-year period. And that's before the era of head football Coach Mark Stoops, who was hired at UK last year.
UK officials said earlier this year that they planned to spend $12 million on football during this school year. In addition, UK has plans for a $110 million renovation of Commonwealth Stadium.
However, UK's football spending pales in comparison with other Southeastern Conference Schools. UK spent $105,016 per player in 2011, compared to the SEC median of $180,626. The Division 1 median was $102,128.
While many universities sacrifice academics for athletics, UK officials note that the school's $104 million athletics budget is used to support academics. Athletics provides about $1 million a year in scholarships, and has pledged to pay about $65 million in debt service on a planned $100 million science building.
UK spokesman Jay Blanton said that example "is the kind of partnership we want — and expect — to continue going forward.
"Dr. Kirwan is correct — there is tremendous opportunity in college athletics to support our academic mission," Blanton said. "But there must be a balance between athletic expenditures and broader institutional goals. Fortunately, at UK, that balance clearly exists."
There is a different scenario at other Kentucky schools, and many Division 1 schools around the nation.
At Western Kentucky University, for example, athletics received $36,238 per athlete from the school in 2011, including student fees, administrative support or general fund expenditures. That number was $33,177 at Eastern Kentucky University, $17,257 at the University of Louisville and $1,682 at UK.
Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission, said that while UK and other self-sustaining athletic departments don't take away from academics, they still need plenty of scrutiny.
"More effective disclosure of finances and of financial priority will enhance the ability of the university to ensure their programs are advancing higher education, and not just operating a commercial franchise," Perko said. "At what point should athletic revenues be used in different ways than just following the philosophy of 'we're going to spend what we make' when it should be strengthening the academic mission?"
Search an interactive database produced by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics at http://spendingdatabase.knightcommission.org.
Linda Blackford: (859) 231-1359. Twitter: @lbblackford