Durham County

NCCU wants to cut its subsidies for sports. But it would come at a cost for students

N.C. Central celebrates its win over Norfolk State University in the MEAC championship NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 11, 2017 at the Scope arena in Norfolk, Va.
N.C. Central celebrates its win over Norfolk State University in the MEAC championship NCAA college basketball game Saturday, March 11, 2017 at the Scope arena in Norfolk, Va. AP

N.C. Central University would end up with second-highest student athletics fee in the UNC system if the system’s board goes along with a fee request Chancellor Johnson Akinleye’s staff says is designed to free up money for other uses at the institution.

The mandatory, $847-a-head levy would trail only the nearly $879 the UNC’s system’s smallest campus, Elizabeth City State University, wants to charge its students, according to figures the system’s finance staff presented to the Board of Governors’ budget committee.

NCCU currently has the fifth-highest athletic fee in the system, but in the words of business affairs Vice Chancellor Ben Durant is pushing for a 5 percent increase for the 2018-19 academic year because campus leaders want its intercollegiate sports program to become “more reliant on gate receipts, donations and athletic fees.”

Trustees have pushed Akinleye and his predecessor, former Chancellor Debra Saunders-White, to reduce campus-budgetary subsidies of the sports program. Those subsidies approached $3 million a year in 2015-16 and 2016-17, but administrators have pledged to lower them to $2.1 million by 2019-20.

This year’s proposed $40 fee increase follows one of $58 in 2017-18 that, along with helping on the subsidy question, allowed NCCU’s football team to play only one sacrificial “guarantee” game against higher-level competition last season. That was the season opener with Duke University, a 60-7 loss.

Rivalry games with N.C. A&T State University and guarantee games in football and basketball are NCCU’s primary moneymakers at the gate.

In percentage terms, NCCU’s requested increase is also the second-largest of the four the Board of Governors has received from system campuses regarding athletics fees. Elizabeth City wants a 7.8 percent increase, UNC-Greensboro asks to raise athletics fees by 3 percent and N.C. A&T has put in for a 1.8 percent increase.

A&T would charge its students $845 a head if its request goes through.

The schools with the highest athletics fees in the 16-university UNC system tend to be historically black, small or both, reflecting their inherent inability to cash in on economies of scale or TV revenue the way flagship campuses like UNC-Chapel Hill and N.C. State University can.

The exception to that pattern is UNC-Charlotte, which charges an $824-a-head athletics fee because campus leaders added football to its sports program in 2013 at the behest of student and alumni groups. It’s now getting flak from students because the 49er football team went 1-11 last season.

But while the Board of Governors has pushed campuses to limit their tuition- and fee-increase requests for the coming year, the budget committee didn’t pose any questions about the athletics levies during its initial review of the systemwide finance package on Thursday.

Its chairman, Temple Sloan, said the committee will vote on the package in March, and likely hold a teleconference between now and then to go over some of the details.

System administrators said campuses are under orders to supply “a full justification” for any fee increase that includes both an explanation of how the extra money will be spent and for why other revenue sources can’t fill the need.

That creates an apparent problem for NCCU in selling the athletics-fee increase given that, by definition, it’s already filling the need from existing sources and is proposing the increase to allow a change in campus spending priorities.

Ray Gronberg: 919-419-6648, @rcgronberg