Virginia fans cheer at a basketball game while athletic directors defend charging students fees by citing what sports offer campus life. (Ryan M. Kelly/AP)

Virginia fans cheer at a basketball game while athletic directors defend charging students fees by citing what sports offer campus life. (AP Phoro: Ryan M. Kelly)

Full-time undergraduate students at nearby Virginia Tech, faced with increasing tuition and mounting loans to get a degree that might or might not lead to a job after graduation, also must shell out $288 a year in a fee to support the debt-ridden multi-million sports programs of the university.

Students at the University of Virginia in Charlottesville part with $657 a year in mandatory fees to the sports operations, which costs more than $70 million a year and is also in debt.

Virginia Tech’s athletic programs, including the high profile football team, cost $65 million a year and, like all such programs of the Atlantic Coast Conference, lose millions of dollars.

The debt in Blacksburg could go even higher now that retiring Frank Beamer, who was getting $2.7 million in his last year of coaching, is replaced by Justin Fuente, who starts at $3.2 million and has another $3.6 million at his disposal to pay his assistants.

Coaches are the highest paid employees of state owned universities in Virginia and around the country.  A fully-tenured professor whose teaching might actually help a student graduate, obtain a degree and, possibly a job, earns an average annual salary of $73,207.

Advocates of big-time athletic programs at Virginia Tech point to large fees from television contracts and other stipends that they say support such operations.

But if such payments make university athletics self-supporting why does Virginia Tech, UVa and other schools also tap the already-strained finances of students for hundreds of dollars a year in “student fees” and other charges?

Report Will Hobson and Steven Rich of The Washington Post:

At many of America’s largest public universities, athletic departments making millions more every year from surging television contracts, luxury suite sales and endorsements continue to take money from tens of thousands of students who will never set foot in stadiums or arenas.

High-dollar university athletic programs lose money and drain resources that might be used more effectively to educate students.  Annual student fees brought in more than $125 million at 52 athletic programs studied by the Post.

College graduates this year will start looking for work with record debt from student loans.  The average amount due from those loans is over $35,000.  Those who stay in school to obtain master or doctorate degrees could face more than $100,000 in debt from student loans.

Virginia Tech spent $41 million in 2004 on its athletic programs and lost money.  The university spent $65 million this year and will lose even more.

A study by The Washington Post found that 25 athletic operations in the United States lost billions of dollars overall and turn to other sources, including the pocketbooks of students, to try to balance the books.

Reports Hobson and Rich:

Big-time college sports departments are making more money than ever before, thanks to skyrocketing television contracts, endorsement and licensing deals, and big-spending donors. But many departments also are losing more money than ever, as athletic directors choose to outspend rising income to compete in an arms race that is costing many of the nation’s largest publicly funded universities and students millions of dollars. Rich departments such as Auburn have built lavish facilities, invented dozens of new administrative positions and bought new jets, while poorer departments such as Rutgers have taken millions in mandatory fees from students and siphoned money away from academic budgets to try to keep up.

“These students are being forced to pay for something that they may or may not take advantage of, and then they have to bundle this into student loans they’ll be re-paying for 10 or 20 years,” Natalia Abrams, executive director of the nonprofit Student Debt Crisis, told the Post.

“It’s a huge problem in higher education,” said David Catt, a former golfer at the University of Kansas. “You think you’re paying for a degree and you wind up as a piggy bank for a semi-professional sports team.”