As Student Athletes Become Priority One, Everyday Students Become Less Important

Travis Burchart
14 min readMar 19, 2024


At colleges and universities across the country, more than 500,000 student-athletes work every day to improve their skills, practice with teammates, and excel in their respective sports.[1] Many of them have trained their entire lives, sacrificing family vacations, school dances, and time with friends for a chance to compete at the collegiate level. But all too often, these students’ dreams of collegiate success are squashed by the one organization that should be championing these incredible athletes: the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA). — U.S. Senator Marsha Blackburn (R-TN)

In the eyes of Senator Blackburn, student athletes are a top priority[2] because they work hard every day, they sacrifice their time, and they have dreams of “collegiate success.” Also, numbers are important here; according to Blackburn, there are “more than 500,000” student athletes in America. Thus, student athletes — because of their large numbers — demand legislative heroes.

The Other 98%

Without context, “more than 500,000 student-athletes” sounds like a huge number, but really, it’s a very tiny minority. At the University of Tennessee, there are 570 unduplicated student athletes on campus. Looking solely at undergraduates — 25,067 — that’s just 2.3% of the enrollment. Nationally, about 19M undergraduate/graduate students are enrolled in college (2023), meaning Blackburn’s number (500K) represents just 2.6% of America’s college population.

The point I’m making here is that a U.S. Senator is spending a lot of time, energy, and breath on a thin slice of enrollment. Alone, this isn’t a bad thing, but Blackburn’s rationale — to defend hard-working, time-sacrificing, dream-chasing students — acknowledges the realities of one group and one group only. Because in America, nearly 98% of college students are not student athletes. However, like student athletes, many of them have studied “their entire lives, sacrificing family vacations, school dances, and time with friends for a chance to [excel] at the collegiate level.”[3]

My question for Blackburn (and other legislators) is this: What are you doing for the 98% who are not student athletes? Like the education major who “sacrifices” family vacations to work a job? Or the theatre major who “works every day to improve” his skills? Or the first-generation student who has “dreams of collegiate success”?

“Dreams of Collegiate Success” Are for Everyone

As an advocate for higher education, I believe everyone should go to college. I also believe college “can be” affordable to everyone. But (and this is a BIG but), “affordability” isn’t so simple. For some, it might demand 1) a sacrifice of choice (not everyone can go to Stanford), 2) a sacrifice of comfort (a student might have to work a job), or 3) a sacrifice of freedom (a student might have to live at home).

“Affordability” is something that’s “attainable,” but that doesn’t mean “affordability” is easy. Which brings me back to Blackburn and my next question: Where is her outrage — her 730-word press release — in support of the “uncelebrated” college student — the one who sacrifices to pay for college, the one who does hard things to chase a dream? Where is her acknowledgment of the students who work hard everyday — without an athletic scholarship, without the support and amenities of an athletic department, without legislative champions — “to improve their skills, practice with [classmates], and excel in their respective [majors]”?

Within the 98% — the ones Blackburn ignores — there’s a huge subset of hardworking dreamers who deserve legislative attention. These are the students cutoff from NIL money … who lack the size, strength, and speed to earn an athletic scholarship … who never benefit from a multimillion-dollar athletic budget. This subset consists of 1) the dead-zone — middle-class students who have financial resources but who are “too rich” to receive financial aid[4] — and 2) the disadvantaged — low-income students who qualify for financial aid but who lack long-term financial resources.[5]

Combined, these two groups — the middle class (50%) and the lower class (29%) — make up nearly 80% of the U.S. population. Thus, on a sliding scale, college affordability is “more difficult” for most “everyday” college students … i.e., middle/lower class students (about 80%) who don’t play a sport (about 98%). As I said, college “affordability” is doable but not necessarily easy. Sliding the scale the other way, only a small percentage enjoy the “easier” side of affordability: 1) the 2% of college athletes who benefit from athletic scholarships and NIL money and 2) the upper-class — about 21% of the U.S. population — who need no aid and have adequate financial resources.

For Every Action, an Opposite Reaction

Many experts and policymakers agree that both the rising cost of college and the existing volume of loans need to be addressed. They acknowledge that surging student debt[6] is harming younger generations of students by preventing them from reaching their financial goals while exacerbating racial inequality. While older generations were generally able to pay their way through school, or find jobs that enabled them to pay off their debts, that no longer holds true for recent cohorts, they argue. — Council on Foreign Relations. (August 22, 2023). Is rising student debt harming the U.S. economy?. Council on Foreign Relations.

For many, the “rising cost of college” sits in a bubble. The main actor — the party who physically “raises” the cost — is the only villain … that is, colleges and universities. But step outside the bubble, and you’ll see that “rising cost” isn’t so cut and dry; often, it’s our politicians who play a big part in tuition decisions:

Because higher education has the ability to raise outside revenue, which it does by charging tuition, it is a politically attractive area for cuts during downturns. State-budget cuts in the sector are often associated with tuition increases. [emphasis added] As a result, at the same time students and their families are feeling squeezed by an economic downturn, tuition increases kick in, limiting access to a college education.

Exacerbating the problem … smaller increases [occur] during “good” economic years and larger cuts [occur] during “bad” economic times, resulting in a general ratcheting down of higher-education support by states. In addition, the time to recovery after a cut in state appropriations has been lengthening. [emphasis added] In the 1980s, recoveries to prior funding levels were predictable and quick, but recoveries slowed in the 1990s. By the 2000s, a return to prior funding levels could take more than a decade, if it happened at all. — Jennifer A. Delaney (August 30, 2023). Higher Ed’s financial roller coaster. The Chronicle of Higher Education

Politicians brag that they spend billions on higher education. Or when they raise spending for a year, they fire up the spotlight and call it a win. But they don’t brag when budgets are cut. And the spotlight … it never shines on political foot dragging, the kind that strands education budgets at pre-cut levels:

During the 1980s, cuts of 5% or more were rare, and “most states — about 75% — restored higher education funding to its prior levels within four years,” [University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign Professor Jennifer] Delaney said. “But in the 1990s, of the 41 states that cut higher education appropriations, only 45% restored that funding within six years. And more recently — from 2000–2015 — recovery became increasingly unlikely. Only 5% of the states in the risk set had their state revenue restored to the previous level within five years. [emphasis added] — Forrest, S. (2023, May 5). Book examines the effects of volatility in state funding for higher education. University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign New Bureau.

When it comes to budget volatility … a volatility that tethers political decisions to rising tuition … I can’t find a 730-word press release from Blackburn. I can’t find any reassurance — in terms of spending — for the 19,000,000 college students who “work every day to improve their skills, practice with [classmates], and excel in their respective [majors].” In terms of tuition and funding, I don’t see her championing the everyday student … the 98% who are never cheered for, who never where a uniform, who never hoist a trophy. Or the 80% … middle and lower class … who work two jobs to pay for tuition, who skip lunch to save money, who live on canned goods from the food bank.

Higher Education Funding: Who’s Getting What?

Of course, funding opponents will point to a singular number and say the everyday college student gets more than enough. In Blackburn’s state of Tennessee,[7] government funding for higher education totaled $2.3 billion (fiscal year 2022). So Tennessee college students — 177,413 total FTE students at public institutions — are benefiting from billions of government dollars.[8] But how does this compare to spending on college athletes:

I don’t have a problem with Blackburn’s fight for student athletes. What I do have a problem with is 1) her exclusion of everyday college students from the hard-working, self-sacrificing, dream-chasing narrative, and 2) her sole focus on (i.e., her fight for)[9] the most well-funded 2% of college students (i.e., athletes) without any fight for the 98% who are receiving much, much less.[10]

All Hard Working Students Matter

Senator Blackburn says:

With all the hard work they put into their academics and sports, student-athletes deserve every opportunity to succeed.

The everyday college student puts in the same hard work when it comes to academics. And while it might not be “sports,” there’s hard work put into part-time jobs, theatre rehearsal, campus government, academic research, homecoming preparations, band performances, cheer practice, community involvement, and so on. Like student-athletes, these students “deserve every opportunity to succeed.”

But it’s much harder for these students — everyday students — to succeed when the NCAA is the popular problem, when state budgets are volatile, when per-athlete spending dwarfs per-student spending,[11] and — especially — when politicians publicly champion — not every student — but only those students who seem to matter.

[1] When people talk about college athletics, they suffer from center-stage syndrome; they focus only on the main actors and nobody else. Beyond the 500,000 caught in Blackburn’s focus, there are thousands of supporting students who play a part in wins/losses, attendance, and athletic revenue. These are the everyday students — cheerleaders, trainers, student sections, mascots, band members — who (like “employee” athletes) deserve some sort of compensation for their services.

[2] I’m not arguing that student athletes aren’t important. They are important, and they deserve fairness (as students), accolades (as athletes) and payment (as employees). But forgotten in all this — all the money, politics, media, and lawsuits — are the everyday students. I’m merely asking, “Who’s advocating for the everyday students?”

[3] Of course, the simplest rebuttal from Senator Blackburn would be that “this goes without saying.” But this is flawed in two respects: first, if it “goes without saying,” why does it need to be said for student athletes? Second, “it goes without saying” implies that it’s been said enough, but here, that’s not the case. Compared to student athletes, very little is being said about the everyday (forgotten) college student.

[4] The very-real struggles of low-income students are often talked about, but the middle-class struggles receive much less attention. But that doesn’t mean these struggles don’t exist:

Cultural anthropologist and professor at New York University, Caitlin Zaloom, explained how many middle-class families face the struggle of paying for college. She stated how middle-class families tend to make more than the amount needed to qualify for the federal grants reserved for low-income families, but, “not enough to pay for college outright.” — Wong, E. (2023). Navigating through the middle-class struggles to pay for college. The Wildcat Tribune.

With college tuition costs rising at a pace faster than inflation, middle and upper middle income families find themselves in a challenging position. While they are generally unable to qualify for significant need based federal and institutional grant aid or subsidized loans, they are also far from being able to afford college costs out of pocket. — Jeffrey Prince (1/8/2022). Too Rich for Aid, Too Poor for Tuition: The College Affordability Dilemma for the Middle and Upper Middle Class. Harvard Undergraduate Student Research into Higher Education.

[5] Student athletes (like low-income students) receive financial aid, but they also receive a secondary benefit … a spot within a protective circle that typically provides quality food, quality training, quality healthcare, and quality clothes. Low-income (non-athlete) students receive financial aid too, but they live outside this protective circle. While school tuition might be paid for, low-income still defines other choices these students must make. To pay for rent, gas, or supplies, they might make the difficult decision to skip meals, avoid the doctor, wear threadbare clothes, or visit the food bank.

[6] Despite the narrative, the student debt problem is not the pandemic many people make it out to be. The facts are: 1) about half of outstanding student debt is from graduate school borrowers, which includes higher earning professional (medicine, pharmacy, architecture, etc.) degrees; 2) the majority of students graduate with less than $20,000 in debt, while a small portion of borrowers hold an outsize share of student debt; 3) more than one-third of the total debt is held by the 7% of borrowers who owe more than $100,000; and 4) students who don’t graduate are the ones who struggle the most; their default rate is 3x times higher than those who graduate.

[7] It’s more than possible that Blackburn, a U.S. Senator, might defer to the Tennessee state government in terms of higher education funding, washing her hands of the whole issue. But by speaking into the University of Tennessee’s clash with the NCAA, Blackburn shows that she’s more than willing to wade into state issues and publicly defend a state institution, 500K state-funded athletes, and a state-sponsored lawsuit brought against the NCAA.

[8] Something hidden by these big numbers is that Tennessee’s budget appears to play favorites, benefiting some institutions more than others. This means that the everyday Tennessee student at one university might be better funded than the everyday student at another university, exacerbating student struggles at a deeper level:

Tennessee State University supporters and the state government continue to find themselves in a quagmire as both parties have recognized that the historic Black college was underfunded.

On average, the state spends around $2,206 more per student at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville than at [Tennessee State University]. … The data breaks down on average that UTK gets $11,083 per student, and TSU receives $8,832 during the last decade.

[9] When the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in college admissions, Senator Blackburn, on X (formerly Twitter), had this to say:

Affirmative action forces colleges to put students into a box. It discredits the hard work and diverse backgrounds that countless applicants have, and requires colleges to value one single characteristic above others.

As we can see from the funding data, athletics places a minority of students “into a box” … a richly rewarding box (when compared to everyday students). Moreover, in terms of superior funding, colleges ”value one single characteristic above others” … the characteristic of athletic talent.

[10] From Investigating the Impacts of State Higher Education Appropriations and Financial Aid:

Increased financial investments — specifically, increased state general operating and student financial aid — are directly tied to student success in higher education. … [S]tates will not meet their attainment goals or the workforce demands of the modern economy without sustained investment in the public higher education sector. [emphasis added]

Policy recommendations include:

[S]tates should invest more in their public institutions when possible. States are not likely to see significant gains in their postsecondary completion numbers and attainment rates without increased investment in their institutions. [emphasis added] … [S]uch investments are likely to pay significant dividends through increased enrollment, persistence, and completions. The overall increase in educational attainment that comes with state investment in their institutions will help states meet dynamic workforce needs of the post-pandemic economy, provide many additional societal benefits … and increase state income tax revenue ….

Likewise, most studies we reviewed consistently point toward additional financial aid dollars influencing student behavior. [emphasis added] Moreover, the dollars invested in these programs have a large return on investment for state and federal governments through increased student persistence and credential attainment as well as increased income tax revenue ….

[11] Maybe Blackburn argues that universities have the autonomy — beyond her purview — to allocate money as they fit, with more going (per student) to student athletes and less to everyday students (however, pursuing this argument means you can say the same thing in defense of tuition increases). This argument suffers two problems. First, it implies that a perceived unfairness isn’t subject to change because of institutional freedom and autonomy. This, however, falls apart in light of Blackburn’s attack upon the autonomous NCAA:

The NCAA has a long history of backroom deliberations that produce unfair punishments for athletes, coaches, and universities, including in Tennessee. … For years, my colleagues and I on the Senate Commerce Committee have warned NCAA officials that the American people expect fairness, transparency, and consistency from an organization that wields tremendous influence over our nation’s students and universities.

Second, this argument blesses university misspending. It turns a blind eye to million-dollar coaching contracts, million-dollar buyouts, million-dollar facilities, and million-dollar losses. It greenlights university excesses (i.e., autonomy) at the expense of financial stewardship:

Most universities around the country, public and private, … lose big money on athletics. They all rely on similar logic, figuring that high-profile sports programs boost applications and drive alumni giving. They are a loss leader, in a sense.

State universities thus find themselves in a chicken-egg riddle. They need to spend heavily to build successful athletics teams in order to tap the revenue and private dollars that might one day allow the programs to function without university money. For most, that day never comes.

Students often end up bearing the financial burden of their money-losing sports programs.

Some state schools collect student fees earmarked for athletics departments. Others move money from their “unrestricted education and general fund” — which includes student tuition and state appropriations — into their athletics budgets.

“I know how important athletics are,” [former University of New Orleans Chancellor Tim] Ryan said. “However, it’s not the purpose of a university. The purpose of a university is to educate students. There are clearly cases … where that comes into conflict with having an athletics program. You don’t have the dollars.” — Gallo, A. (2016, February 12). Special report: Why are athletics largely immune to higher education budget cuts?.

Moreover, the autonomy argument allows university presidents to escape accountability for careless spending decisions … decisions that ultimately harm everyday students:

In proposing … to eliminate 169 faculty positions and cut more than 30 degree programs from its flagship university, West Virginia, the state with the fourth-highest poverty rate in the country, is engaging in a kind of educational gerrymandering. If you’re a West Virginian with plans to attend West Virginia University, be prepared to find yourself cut out of much of the best education that the school has traditionally offered, and many of the most basic parts of the education offered by comparable universities.

[T]he projected deficit is the result of overly aggressive planning more than it is a financial liability created by the humanities. E. Gordon Gee, the president of West Virginia University, once promised that the school would have 40,000 students by 2020, but the figure is still well under 30,000 across three campuses and is projected to drop.

[C]utting humanities programs — which make up a sizable minority of the majors slated to be cut, alongside pre-professional and technical programs — is not necessarily the best way to save money. There is substantial evidence that humanities departments, unlike a majority of college athletics programs, often break even [emphasis added] (and some may even subsidize the sciences). — Weatherby, L. (2023, August 20). What just happened at West Virginia University should worry all of Us. The New York Times.

(Note: The author, NYU professor Leif Weatherby, mentions the typical reason for cutting the humanities: “In defense of its proposed cuts, West Virginia University has cited declining interest [emphasis added] in some of its humanities programs.” Weatherby rebuts this argument by noting that most college athletics programs lose money. However, there’s another point to be made: Why doesn’t declining fan interest (i.e., lower attendance) put an athletic program on the chopping block? It doesn’t. Instead, it does the exact opposite; it typically spurs an investment of university money … money to buy out an old coach and money to hire a new coach.]



Travis Burchart

Social media expert, higher education advocate, writer, Founding Fathers fan, lawyer in a past life