Access to college and university athletic program information

Consider this hypothetical: Your newspaper's head sports reporter just heard from his inside source that the nationally ranked men's foosball team at your college received $250,000 of new equipment last year while funding for the women's team was cut for the third year in a row. The source also tells your reporter that nearly half of the players from the team are in danger of flunking out because of poor grades.

Frankly, your reporter has often wondered how some of them were ever admitted to your academically competitive college in the first place. Finally, the source says that the school plans to raise tuition next year to cover a shortfall in the athletic department's budget. Given that students already pay $50 for a foosball match ticket and $10 for a stadium hot dog (not to mention the $1 surcharge for ketchup), your reporter wonders where all of the athletic department's money goes.

Your reporter knows from past experience that this source's leads can only be trusted so far. He will need independent confirmation. Unfortunately, he knows that the tight-lipped public information officer will once again simply point to the framed "No Comment" sign on her wall when you approach her.

Fortunately for your reporter, much of the information he seeks is available because of either:

  1. federal legislation,
  2. traditional state open records laws, or
  3. the National Collegiate Athletic Association

While students attending a public school have probably always had — and continue to have — a right to much of the information your reporter needs by using their state open records law, private school students were generally out of luck.

However, Congress and the NCAA, reacting to charges of administrative abuse and poor academic performance by student athletes in some college athletic programs, have sought to more closely monitor the situation by enacting laws and regulations that require schools to compile and disclose detailed information about the administration of their college athletic programs. For example, the Student Right-to-Know Act and NCAA regulations grant students and the general public access to college and university reports regarding enrollment and graduation rates of student athletes. The Equity in Athletics Act requires schools to compile and make available to the public annual reports comparing the amount of money spent on varsity programs for both men and women. And federally mandated "Program Participation Agreements" compel schools to generate budget reports listing such information as athletic staff salaries, revenues from sporting events and total program expenditures.

As college athletics become an ever-bigger enterprise at many schools, the student media has an ever-growing obligation to monitor their programs. The following guide should provide you — and your reporter — with valuable tools for obtaining the information you need to do your job.

Student Right to Know Act

The Student Right to Know Act, 1 a federal law passed in 1990 to remedy the perceived abuse surrounding athletic scholarships and other athletically related financial aid, is one avenue for getting access to this information. The law was also aimed at improving retention and graduation rates.

It requires most colleges and universities to issue an annual report to the U.S. Department of Education. This report must compare the graduation rates of student-athletes to that of other students, broken down by race and gender. It also must contain the total number of students at each institution compared with the total number receiving athletically related student aid participating in various sports.

Who must comply and what is the penalty for noncompliance with the Student Right to Know Act?

All postsecondary schools that receive federal financial assistance (for example, institutional research grants, federal work-study assistance or other grants for students and National Direct Student Loans) and offer athletically related financial aid must comply with the act. This includes almost all postsecondary schools issuing athletic scholarships since virtually every postsecondary school — public and private — receives some form of federal financial assistance. (Note, however, that because NCAA Division III schools cannot offer athletically related financial aid, they will not be required by this law to provide graduation rate information specifically for student athletes. They are, however, required to provide the overall graduation rate for students at their school.2) Schools that fail to submit a report to the Department of Education would risk losing their eligibility for federal aid or face other penalties for noncompliance.

Where can I get this information?

Reports required under this law must be filed with the Department of Education by July 1 of each year. All schools must report the data that they have (for example, the number of students attending, those receiving athletically related aid, etc.) regardless of whether or not they publish graduation rates. The Department of Education is then supposed to summarize the data and indicate how schools rank nationally.

According to Department of Education regulations, schools are supposed to make their report reasonably available to the public through appropriate mailings and publications. Reports should also be kept on file for students or the general public to review upon request and must be distributed directly to prospective student-athletes. Alternatively, this information should also be available by making a request (either informal or under the federal Freedom of Information Act3) to the U.S. Department of Education.4

In addition to requirements under the Student Right-to-Know Act, universities and colleges participating in NCAA competition are required by NCAA regulations,5 to make graduation rate (number of students graduating within six years of enrollment) or persistence rate (a measure of how many students in a given class return to school for the following year) data, broken down by race and gender, publicly available. Division I schools must issue graduation rate data for the classes entering six years prior to the current year. Division II and III schools are required to issue either graduation or persistence rate data annually as to how many students are enrolled.

These reports must list the number of entering student-athletes receiving athletically related aid in various sports, the total number of students in the school and the average graduation or persistence rates of previous classes for athletes and non-athletes. Division I schools are also required to report: 1) high school grade point averages for the collective group of entering student-athletes receiving athletic aid broken down by major sport, 2) average college board scores, 3) courses of study and 4) average time spent to graduate by athletes and non-athletes.

Who must comply and what is the penalty for noncompliance with NCAA regulations?

All colleges and universities participating in NCAA competition are subject to the NCAA's regulations. Schools that fail to submit the required information by the July 1 deadline will not be allowed to enter a team or individual in any NCAA championship event.

Where can I get NCAA information?

The NCAA makes this information available on its website. You can find it by selecting an NCAA Division and then an individual school.

The Web site also includes data on NCAA Graduation Success Rate (GSR) and the Academic Success Rate (ASR). According the NCAA, the GSR measures graduation rates at Division I institutions and includes students transferring into the institutions. The GSR also allows institutions to subtract student-athletes who leave their institutions prior to graduation as long as they would have been academically eligible to compete had they remained.

The ASR measures graduation rates at Division II institutions and is very similar to the GSR. The difference is that the ASR also includes freshmen who were recruited to the institution but did not receive athletics financial aid.

Financial data for men's & women's sports

Athletic program financial data broken down by gender can be obtained using the Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act (EADA),6 a federal law passed in 1994 to address the unequal resources traditionally allocated to men's and women's athletics.

It requires every coeducational college and university that receives federal funding and that participates in intercollegiate athletics to make an annual report publicly available. This report should compare the amount of money spent on men's varsity sports programs to that spent on women's, as well as list the revenues and expenditures for each team.

The EADA report must also include: (1) a comparison of the amount of athletically related student aid awarded to student-athletes by gender, (2) the amount of money and other resources spent on recruiting student-athletes, (3) the amount of annual revenue generated by varsity teams and (4) the average annual salaries of the head coaches and assistant coaches of varsity teams.

Who must comply and what is the penalty for noncompliance?

Every coeducational college and university — public and private — with an intercollegiate athletic program that receives federal financial assistance (for example, institutional research grants, federal work-study assistance or other grants for students and National Direct Student Loans) is subject to this law. Schools that do not comply with this provision risk losing their federal funding.

Where can I get this information?

There is no regulation indicating where the report must be made available. However, the Department of Education suggested in its regulations that if copies were left at the intercollegiate athletic offices, admissions offices, libraries or sent to each student by e-mail, this requirement would be satisfied. Students, prospective students, parents or coaches may not be charged for this information. Members of the general public can be charged reasonable copy fees.

This law requires schools to inform students of their right to obtain the information included in the reports but the Department of Education will not regulate this requirement. The Department does, however, recommend that notice of the reports' availability be given at least once annually in a widely circulated school publication, such as an institution bulletin or newsletter.

Alternatively, this information is also kept by the Department of Education. You can find it online or it should be available by submitting a request, either informally or under the federal Freedom of Information Act.7

Athletic department budgets

Detailed financial information about a school's sports program can be obtained by invoking rights under another federal law,8 which requires schools to compile program participation agreements. This law was passed in 1992, like the Student Right-to-Know Act, to combat perceived abuse concerning athletic funding. It requires most colleges or universities to compile annual reports that detail the revenues and expenditures that can be attributed to their school's sports programs.

Revenues include, but are not limited to: 1) gate receipts, 2) broadcast revenues, 3) appearance guarantees and options and 4) concessions and advertising. Among the expenses that must be reported are: 1) grants-in-aid 2) salaries 3) travel, 4) equipment and 5) supplies.

Who must comply and what is the penalty for noncompliance?

Every coeducational college and university — public and private — with an intercollegiate athletic program that receives federal financial assistance and offers athletically related student aid (does not include Division III schools) is subject to this law. Schools that do not comply with this provision risk losing their federal funding.

Where can I get this information?

The Department of Education has said that schools may implement their own reasonable guidelines for making these documents available to the public. For example, they may establish special times to view them or require an appointment. Such guidelines, however, may not impose an unreasonable burden on the requester.

These records will probably be kept at the athletic department offices or with the school's financial officers. Due to the flexibility given to institutions in maintaining this information, there are various places that these reports may be kept.

What should I do if I have problems or questions obtaining any of the records described above?

While you should be courteous and understanding, you should also be firm. You — and your readers — are entitled to this information. While it is hoped that most schools will be cooperative, inevitably some reporters will run into roadblocks.

In the event of trouble, it will be important to put all requests in writing. Generating a paper trail is necessary for both personal reference and for holding individuals accountable. Initial problems can be directed to the Student Press Law Center.

For more specific questions or concerns about the federal laws discussed above you may want to contact one of the Department of Education's Freedom of Information Act Public Liaisons at (202) 245-6651.

To request information directly from the Department of Education, using the Freedom of Information act, you can send an e-mail to: EDFOIAManager@ed.gov, or a fax to: (202) 245-6623.

Finally, if you use the methods suggested by these parties and are still having trouble, you may want to consider filing a formal, written complaint against your school with the Inspector General's office at the Department of Education. You can write to the office at: U.S. Department of Education, Office of the Inspector General, 400 Maryland Avenue SW, Washington, DC 20202-1510, e-mail to: oig.hotline@ed.gov or call: (800) 647-8733.

For more information about the NCAA regulations, you can contact: Eric Hartung, Associate Director of Research, National Collegiate Athletic Association, at ehartung@ncaa.org or (317) 917-6222.

There is a vast amount of information that college athletic programs are required to disclose. With knowledge and persistence, an enterprising student reporter should be able to dig it up.

Jay Hathaway, a law student at Rutgers School of Law in Camden, N.J. and a 2006 graduate of Knox College, where he served as editor-in-chief of The Knox Student, helped update and revise this article.

Endnotes

  1. 20 U.S.C. § 1092(e).
  2. 20 U.S.C. § 1092(a)(1)(L).
  3. 5 U.S.C. § 552
  4. For more information, see Student Assistance General Provisions; Final Rule (Student Right-to-Know Act regulations, 34 C.F.R. 668.48)
  5. N.C.A.A. regs. 13.3 (2006) and 30.1 (2004)
  6. 20 U.S.C. § 1092(g).
  7. For more information, see Student Assistance General Provisions; Final Rule (Equity in Athletics Disclosure Act regulations), 34 C.F.R. 668.45(a)(1), and 34 C.F.R. 668.47.
  8. 20 U.S.C. § 1092(g).