PSU Football Media Day

Head coach James Franklin, speaks to the press, during Penn State Football Media Day at Beaver Stadium in State College Saturday August 3, 2019.

THE ISSUE 

James Franklin, Penn State University’s head football coach, has a new contract to remain with the school through 2025, LNP’s Mike Gross reported Saturday. Terms of the contract, which was approved by a committee of Penn State’s Board of Trustees, have yet to be disclosed. Franklin is being paid $5.35 million for this season, according to the terms of his previous contract. “The new deal ... is believed to include guarantees about spending by Penn State on facilities and staff salaries,” Gross wrote.

Don’t worry. We’re not here to talk much about the X’s and O’s of Penn State football, other than to say we like Franklin and think he’s done his job well in guiding the Nittany Lions’ program since 2014. Penn State will be headed to the Cotton Bowl this month after winning 10 games this season. So, appropriate plaudits for that.

But enough rah-rah. We’re here to talk about financial priorities.

And to sound another note in the ongoing lament about the stratospheric salaries of sports coaches at America’s public institutions of higher learning.

The website GOBankingRates crunched data from USA Today’s 2018 NCAA salary reports and OpenTheBooks.com in August. Here’s what it determined: In 2018, there were 39 states in which the highest paid public employee was a football or basketball coach.

Repeat: The highest paid public employee was a sports coach.

The list of 39 states includes Pennsylvania, where Franklin earned $4.8 million in 2018.

The top spot on the list went to John Calipari, who earned $9.2 million in 2018 as the University of Kentucky men’s basketball coach. Nick Saban, head football coach at the University of Alabama, was second with $8.3 million.

It’s all patently absurd. The money within the world of sports has long been ridiculous, of course. Just this week we learned that the New York Yankees will pay Gerrit Cole $324 million to pitch once every five days during the next nine seasons. (And he’ll be paid even if he can’t pitch.)

But the Yankees are a professional sports franchise making a business choice about what they will pay. The lavish salaries for coaches at public colleges and universities are funded in part by taxpayers. That’s what we find especially grating.

We can’t speak for folks in Kentucky or Alabama. But Penn State paying $5.35 million to a football coach — Franklin’s 2019 salary — hardly seems to be in our state’s or taxpayers’ best interests.

Pennsylvania lawmakers gave $242 million to the university as its general appropriation this year. That represents only a portion of the overall budget for Penn State, a “state-related” institution that uses that designation to keep from being fully transparent on some financial and Right-to-Know Law matters.

We think it’s right to wonder whether Penn State is putting our tax dollars to the best use. To wonder about its planning and vision beyond the football field.

“Opportunity Lost,” a September report by the Institute for Higher Education Policy, analyzed America’s public flagship institutions — schools that receive taxpayer support and are expected to prioritize serving state residents.

“The most unaffordable flagships each have high tuition and minimal investment in need-based aid,” the report noted. “Alabama, Kentucky, Pennsylvania, and South Carolina all exemplify this model. Penn State University has the second highest cost of attendance among flagships, at $35,068 per year, and the other three states maintain flagships with sticker prices of approximately $30,000.”

Penn State, Alabama and Kentucky. Institutions that, as we just noted, put an emphasis on huge salaries for sports coaches.

All while Rome is burning, figuratively speaking.

The Philadelphia Inquirer’s Bob Fernandez wrote last month that “Pennsylvania’s tax-supported networks of four-year colleges look like the nation’s Rust Belt of higher-education systems — plagued by high costs, a dramatic drop in Pennsylvania students, and a rash of empty dorm rooms.” Enrollment has fallen by at least 30% at 12 of Penn State’s 21 campuses since 2010.

The trend will be difficult to reverse, Fernandez wrote, citing the new challenges faced by Pennsylvania colleges, “ranging from cheaper online schools to opportunistic colleges in nearby states that are luring away Pennsylvania students with much lower costs.”

And that’s where this tale comes full circle. A significant factor in these struggles is Harrisburg’s chronic underfunding of higher education. It has led to Penn State being the most expensive public college in the Big Ten Conference for in-state students. And, in turn, some students end up saddled with huge debts.

But at least they get to watch a great football team, right?

So we support increased state funding for the commonwealth’s state and state-related colleges — as well as a thorough appraisal of the Pennsylvania State System of Higher Education, with its 14 colleges and universities. Solving our state’s college affordability crisis and our colleges’ financial struggles must go hand in hand.

It’s hard to make the case for greater funding for Penn State, though, when we see the university spending so lavishly on its football program amid tough times.

Sure, the football program brings in a lot of revenue (we’ve heard that refrain repeatedly). But $242 million in state money is not chump change, either. We wish we had more evidence that Penn State was spending it in the right way.