In 2008, Southern Illinois University Edwardsville began its transition from Division II to Division I athletics.
Today, its men's basketball games are broadcast to millions, and ticket sales are at historic highs. Donations more than tripled in 2013 from 5 years earlier.
But joining the big boys comes with a cost – one that has placed a growing burden on students at the small school about 20 miles outside of St. Louis.
In 2005, the fee students pay to help fund the athletic department was $113 per year. One of almost a dozen fees students pay, it reached $235 by 2009. This school year it will be $352.80. Student fees account for more than half of the athletic department's revenue.
The powerhouses of college athletics – from the Big Ten to the Pac-12 – have so much money from ticket sales, television contracts, and other sources that they don't need student fees.
But that's not the case for many schools in Division I, including some in Illinois, where students are beginning to head back to college and families are opening their checkbooks.
SIU Edwardsville, Western Illinois in Macomb, and Chicago State are examples of mid-major schools – they all have fewer than 12,000 undergraduates – hoping to stay relevant by turning to students for the cash they need, even if those students don't have a say in how much they contribute, or even have an interest in attending games.
"I don't care to subsidize soccer teams and swim teams. That's not doing any benefit to my kids' education," said Jeff Smith, a business professor at South Carolina Upstate who has been critical of the use of student fees. "College presidents and boards feel they've got to be in this arms race."
The Chicago Tribune reviewed fees for 5 years for the nine public institutions in Illinois with Division I programs, plus the most recent financial reports schools must submit separately to the NCAA. At most schools, students are required to pay a flurry of fees in addition to their tuition. They cover everything from health care to textbooks to technology, with the biggest usually for athletics.
The Tribune found that eight schools, all except the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, relied on student fees for at least a quarter of the athletic department revenue over the 5-year period ending with the 2013 academic year. That portion ranged from 27 percent at Eastern Illinois and Chicago State, to 59 percent at SIU Edwardsville.
At Illinois State, that figure was 49 percent. Illinois-Chicago was 47 percent, SIU Carbondale was 43 percent, Northern Illinois was 36 percent, and Western Illinois was 31 percent.
When student fee revenue is combined with direct support from schools – lump sums the university provides, as opposed to "generated revenue" like ticket sales – the athletic budgets show that the two figures account for more than half of income for all schools but U of I. Those 5-year combined totals ranged from 55 percent at NIU to 84 percent at SIU Edwardsville.
School officials said athletic fees – as well as their recent increases – are necessary, because of state funding drops and required to compete at top levels. They also said athletics are an integral aspect of experiencing college, similar to extracurricular activities that may receive fees such as the theater and music productions, and should be a shared cost.
"Intercollegiate athletics is really part of the DNA that we have here at NIU, and has been for a number of years," NIU spokesman Brad Hoey said. "All of our students get into every single athletic event for free – basketball, football, soccer. That's one of the benefits."
In contrast, the biggest schools rarely charge athletic fees. U of I reported that about 5 percent of its total athletic revenue comes from fees and direct support from the school. The $34 fee has gone unchanged since 1997, according to the school.
The next cheapest fee is at Eastern Illinois, which has kept it at $207, unchanged since 2008. The largest is at SIU Carbondale, which charges more than $600 per year, although it increased by less than 10 percent. The largest increase over the 5-year period belonged to Chicago State, which rose by 54 percent to $240 from $156.
Besides Chicago State, four other schools – Western Illinois, SIU Edwardsville, Northern Illinois, and Illinois State – have seen their fee increases outstrip inflation significantly from 2009 to 2013.
At the same time, records show, paychecks for coaches and administrators running the athletic departments are rising at most of these schools. At Western Illinois, salary costs for coaches increased from $1.9 million to $2.8 million.