MINOT, N.D. — Consider, dear reader, this juxtaposition of two recent headlines.

"Building permit application says first phase of Bison indoor practice facility will cost $26 million," we learn from plans filed with the City of Fargo. Note, specifically, that the price tag is just for the first part of this project. This 100,000-square-foot facility is to be built on the North Dakota State University campus, providing a place for the school's football team, which has had enormous success in recent years.

"NDSU sees lowest enrollment count in 15 years, preliminary numbers show," we learn from preliminary enrollment reports released by the university. Stagnation and decline in enrollment numbers have become the norm at NDSU and contributed in no small part to the State Board of Higher Education's decision to move on from long-time, football-obsessed President Dean Bresciani.

How do we reconcile these two news items?

A exterior rendering of North Dakota State University's indoor practice facility, looking from the northeast to the southwest. NDSU Athletics photo
A exterior rendering of North Dakota State University's indoor practice facility, looking from the northeast to the southwest. NDSU Athletics photo

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Critics of college athletics such as myself point to the troubling financials of even some of the country's largest and most successful programs. At NDSU, the sports teams lean on millions of dollars in subsidies from the taxpayers and student tuition/fee revenue. In 2019, the last year for which we have data available from the NCAA, subsidies for athletic programs cost $626.18 per student.

The rebuttal to this argument is that a high-profile and successful football team pays dividends for NDSU. It's good marketing for the school, we're told. It creates a fun campus atmosphere that attracts students, the defenders of the status quo insist.

But does it?

Sports have inflated the per-student cost of attending NDSU, for both the taxpayers and the students, by hundreds of dollars per year at a time when student loan debt is a serious problem. According to the Institute for College Access and Success, our state is ranked ninth highest in the nation, with the average student loan debt calculated at $32,745 per student.

How is inflating the cost of attendance a good thing for students?

As I've already mentioned, NDSU enrollment just tanked at a 15-year low. Since 2011, when NDSU won the first of its recent string of national football championships, enrollment is down nearly 14%.

NDSU has won eight national championships since 2011 in the most popular sport in America, and enrollment saw a steep decline during that same period, yet the defenders of collegiate athletics insist that the football team brings students to campus.

No, it does not.

Meanwhile, the NDSU administration is spending tens of millions not on some project that will enhance the academic experience at NDSU or a new amenity that will serve all NDSU students, but on just the first phase of a luxurious practice facility that will be used by the tiny percentage of NDSU students who play on the football team.

A football team that, based on all available evidence, is not particularly good marketing for the university's academic mission.

The football team and all of its success are great from the perspective of football fans, not to mention the media types who make a living writing and talking about sports. The team draws fans to Fargo and boosts the local economy. University officials, namely Bresciani, get to bask in the light of all that attention, too.

But is spending more money on the football team at a time when NDSU's academic mission is faltering an example of terrible priorities in higher education? Yes, even when the money in question is coming from donations.

Can you imagine where we'd be, as a society, if we promoted and supported academics in the same way we do sports?

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Rob Port, founder of SayAnythingBlog.com, is a Forum Communications commentator. Reach him on Twitter at @robport or via email at rport@forumcomm.com.