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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, May 17, 2010

UH athletic fee justifiable, but just barely

The regents of the University of Hawai'i will soon be asked to approve a new $50 fee to be paid by students on the Mānoa campus to support athletics.

The fee plan has been kicking around for several years as university administrators have tried to end what now appears to be a permanent structural defect in the athletic department budget: Running the sports program costs $2 million a year more than it brings in.

College athletics are so interconnected that it's practically impossible for the athletic department to downsize its roster of sports without jeopardizing league membership, or inviting gender equity litigation, or losing lucrative broadcast revenue and partnerships.

On the revenue side, even the most popular sports are perennial money losers, weighed down by staggering travel costs and erratic attendance. Just like the Honolulu Symphony, everybody loves the idea of a collegiate men's basketball team, but not enough people turn out to support it.

By losing lucrative arrangements that once helped pay the bills, such as parking revenue at Aloha Stadium, the athletic department has just about run out of places to look for money.

The University of Hawai'i is the only school in the Western Athletic Conference that doesn't charge a student activity fee that goes to support athletic s. The fees range from $2 at Nevada to $123 at Idaho, though that steep sum also covers free admission to all games.

Still, we're not very enthusiastic about another mandatory fee. Students are already forced to pay for a newspaper they may not read ($13 a semester), a campus center they may not use ($97), a bus pass they may not need ($20), on top of health center fees, student government fees and all manner of required registration, testing and library fees.

By next year, when the fee is to kick in, full-time resident undergraduates at Mānoa will be paying $4,200 a semester in tuition and another $200 in mandatory fees. The fees fall even more heavily on part-time students, who still have to pay even if they're only taking one class.

Student government leaders are opposed to the athletic fee, unimpressed by Chancellor Virginia Hinshaw's promise that $100,000 will be used for a free concert, tailgate parties and prize giveaways. Students would also get free admission to most athletic events.

UH has been aggressively raising tuition to better reflect the costs of providing a first-class higher education, and we support that strategy. It's still a tremendous bargain.

But the school cannot continue layering mandatory fee atop mandatory fee at the same time tuition is swelling. We reluctantly support the imposition of an athletics fee, but before settling on $50 a semester, Hinshaw should sharpen her pencil, dump the tailgate parties and concert and see if she can get that fee down to the absolute minimum.