She also discovered that the athletics program's share of the fee money was greater than the program's level of importance to the students.
Her findings are part of a growing body of academic research and writing about higher-education finances, including the use of student fees for athletics and other purposes. She says she believes that in today's tough economic environment, people throughout academia are seeking greater accountability from schools.
"Students are more interested in knowing where their money is going because costs are on the rise," she says. "It's difficult to find the money to go to college."
While she found that a little more than 90% of the 760 full-time undergraduate, graduate or professional students who agreed to participate in her survey were aware that they paid a "general fee" over and above their tuition payment, most were clueless that their fee money went toward the athletics department and cheerleading.
Through three separate fee allocations — athletics and cheerleading; the Glass Bowl stadium, and the football program's Larimer Athletic Complex — Toledo athletics received nearly half of the $19.9 million in general fee money the school distributed in 2007-08, Ott found.
Only one in four students in Ott's survey knew athletics and cheerleading received funding vs. nearly half who knew the recreation center and student union did. Fewer than one in three knew a portion of the fee money went toward the Glass Bowl, where Toledo plays home football games, and a little more than 1 in 10 knew it went toward the Larimer facility.
"Students didn't think their money went towards athletics and cheerleading — when actually that's where the majority of the general fee dollars went. So that was a really big surprise for me," said Ott, now associate director of the loan program at Christendom College in Front Royal, Va. The students "rated the rec center as the No. 1 (beneficiary) when actually it was athletics."
When asked to indicate the importance of 22 fee-funded organizations and activities, students put the recreation center at the top of the list and athletics near the bottom. Respondents rated each organization and activity as not important, neutral or important. The recreation center had the greatest percentage rating it as important (70%).
None of the three athletics-related fee recipients was rated as important by more than 21% of respondents; 16 other organizations or activities were rated as important by a greater percentage.
It is difficult to know whether Ott's findings can be extrapolated nationally. Her thesis adviser David Meabon, director of Toledo's Russel Center for Educational Leadership, has launched a four-part national survey that will include a study of the "collection, allocation and expenditure of student activity fees," he says. He says he has surveyed about 800 schools and hopes to publish his initial findings by November.
"We're in a major financial crisis in higher education. I call it the backdoor tuition increase," Meabon says. "For many people, this is a hidden tuition fee or cost — and a backdoor way to fund institutional activities."
The hidden cost of athletics in college education also was explored in a study published in April 2010 by Matthew Denhart and Richard Vedder of the Center for College Affordability and Productivity, a Washington, D.C.-based research group. Among the findings: NCAA Bowl Subdivision schools with less-affluent student populations, as measured by the percentage of students receiving need-based federal money called Pell Grants, are providing athletics programs relatively large subsidies. That money comes through forms of institutional or government support — which Denhart and Vedder describe as a diversion of financial resources from "traditional academic purposes" — and/or student fees.
Denhart and Vetter found that of the 11 FBS conferences, the four with the highest percentages of students receiving Pell Grants were Conference USA, the Western Athletic, the Sun Belt and the Mid-American. Those four conferences also have the second- through fifth-highest athletics subsidy rates (the Mountain West has the highest subsidy rate and the No. 7 Pell Grant recipient rate).
"Those who can most afford to pay a subsidy tax actually pay the smallest amount," Denhart says. "Those who can least afford it pay the most."