Students foot the bill for college sports, and how some are fighting back

At Texas A&M University, the president's proposal to charge all 50,000 students $72 per year to help pay for a $450 million football stadium renovation brought protests.

At Clemson University, the athletic director's idea to charge all 17,000 students $350 per year to help him keep up with competition brought pushback from student government.

At the University of Kansas, a walk-on golfer's push to eliminate a $50 fee all 17,000 students paid the increasingly wealthy athletic department brought a strong -- and to some students, vindictive -- response from administrators.

And 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.

Mandatory student fees for college athletic departments are common across the country. Often small line items of a couple hundred dollars on long, complex tuition bills, these fees make millions for athletic departments at larger colleges.

In 2014, students at 32 schools paid a combined $125.5 million in athletic fees, according to a Washington Post examination of financial records at 53 public universities in the "Power Five," the five wealthiest conferences in college sports.

Big-time college sports departments are making more money than ever -- and spending it just as fast.

To rich athletic departments, these fees represent guaranteed revenue streams that, unlike ticket sales or booster donations, are unaffected by on-field success. To less flush departments, increasing student fees is one way to keep up.

Athletic directors defend fees as well worth what their programs give back to schools.

"Athletics is a common good, bringing people together, developing relationships, unifying the institution, bringing fantastic exposure," said Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage, whose department charges undergraduates $657 annually.

To advocates fighting to keep college affordable, however, athletic departments that continue to charge mandatory student fees as their income rises are making America's student debt problem worse.

"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 repaying for 10 or 20 years," said Natalia Abrams, executive director of the nonprofit Student Debt Crisis.

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

More than salaries

For the roughly 20 million college students in America, the money they -- or their lenders -- pay schools every semester covers much more than professor salaries and dorm upkeep. Many colleges tack fees onto tuition bills to fund complementary aspects of college life such as libraries, computer labs and campus buses.

For hundreds of thousands of students who attend Power Five schools, one of those departments that can charge a fee is making a lot more money from other sources than it used to: athletics.

From 2004 to 2014, the combined income of 48 athletic departments in the Power Five rose from $2.67 billion to $4.49 billion. The median department saw earnings rise from $52.9 million to $93.1 million.

As more money has come in, a few schools have gotten rid of student athletic fees, including both powerhouse Alabama ($147.2 million in 2014 athletics earnings) and middle-of-the-pack Missouri ($72.4 million).

"We take pride in the fact that we carry our own weight and pay our own way," said Tim Hickman, Missouri athletics chief financial officer.

This fall, Kansas State athletics announced it would phase out its student fee by 2020. In 2014, Kansas State athletics made $95.1 million, and charged $500,695 in student fees.

"If you look at the financial pressure on students, the increased cost of tuition it was time to have those dollars be available for other things," Kansas State Athletic Director John Currie said.

Though all Power Five schools are making more from television-rights contracts -- which are paid primarily to conferences, which then split up the money up among member schools -- only some athletic departments, usually those with strong football teams, also have been able to get ticket sales, endorsements and royalties to surge.

At Florida State athletics -- which made $96.8 million in 2014 -- officials justify a $237 fee that generates $8 million by pointing out students get free admittance to Seminoles football games. This is a benefit for the 16,000 students who snag student seats at Doak Campbell Stadium. There are more than 32,000 undergraduates at Florida State, though.

At some departments, athletic directors are increasingly dependent on student fees to help them keep up with big-spending rivals. At the University of Virginia, each student pays $657 per year to athletics, generating $13.2 million that Athletic Director Craig Littlepage said he needs to cover his budget.

From 2004 to 2014, under Littlepage's watch, Virginia athletics spending rose from $50.3 million to $87.4 million, including significant increases in coaches pay (from $8.6 million to $18.1 million), and debt and maintenance costs on facilities (from $2.5 million to $15.2 million). (All 2004 figures are adjusted for inflation.)