CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Marshall University students pay about $890 a year, or nearly a fifth of what tuition costs, to support the university's sports programs.
By contrast, West Virginia University students are required to pay only $157 a year.
In a new report, the Center for College Affordability and Productivity says an arms race in college sports is contributing to increased costs for students.
But, contrary to popular belief, the costs are being felt most by students at smaller schools with less prestigious athletic programs, according to the Washington-based think tank.
Athletic programs at bigger schools in top conferences are able to pick up more revenue from ticket sales, licensing fees and TV deals. In smaller conferences, students and taxpayers are being asked to pick up a larger share of the tab for sports programs.
In West Virginia, the difference between the "haves" and the "have nots" is illustrated by WVU and Marshall, said Matthew Denhart, one of the report's authors.
In an e-mail, Dehart provided figures that came from federal financial records and an analysis of athletic department budgets compiled by USA Today.
Marshall spent about $24 million on athletics last year. About $12.8 million was in subsidies from either student fees or directly or indirectly from institutional monies that are ultimately made up in part by taxpayer dollars, according to the center.
At WVU, student fees and taxpayer dollars amounted to just under 8 percent of the athletic department's $55 million budget in 2008-09.
At Marshall, about $890 a year from each student's tuition went toward funding college sports. In-state undergraduate tuition is about $5,200 a year.
Looking at the money Marshall sends from its university side to its athletic department, about 19 percent of its overall tuition revenue goes to fund sports, according to the center's data.
In other words, if Marshall eliminated its fees for the athletic department, it could cut student tuition by nearly a fifth. But then, its athletic department would lose about half the money it uses to operate each year.
Marshall officials were unable to precisely replicate the figures provided by the Denhart's organization. However, assistant athletic director for media relations Randy Burnside said the numbers were "probable."
"Rich, famous and athletically well-known schools have only been trivially impacted at the institutional level by the explosion in intercollegiate athletic costs, while a significant number of schools that are, on average, poorer, less prestigious, and athletically more marginal have been clobbered," Denhart and Richard Vedder said in the center's report. "We can say that athletic subsidies are a tax on other revenues, a tax diverting resources from traditional academic purposes, and this tax is highly regressive, hitting the poor more than the rich."
Burnside said the think tank's arguments miss the mark by ignoring the importance of college sports, which bring in a diverse student body and are a "part of the college experience."
Burnside also said the numbers don't tell the whole story.
"I think athletics more than pays for itself in the exposure it gives the institution on a national basis," he said. "That value, which this report totally ignores, is huge, even to the smaller institutions."
Burnside said Marshall officials gather reports about Thundering Herd sports in newspapers and on websites. Then they calculate how much it would have cost to pay for that much exposure by buying advertisements. Last year, Burnside said, that cost would have exceeded $40 million.
And that buzz, he said, translates into students.
"I think there is a correlation there, that name recognition causes young people to look into your institution," Burnside said.
Burnside also said there are fixed costs involved in running an athletic program such as maintaining facilities and buying equipment. Smaller schools like Marshall must spread out those expenses among fewer students. Marshall has about 14,000 students, while WVU has about 29,000.