Digging Into Family Funds

Author: Jim Schmutz, ASEP Executive Director


Few schools in the United States can afford the costs of a full array of extracurricular activities without additional sources of funding. Booster groups help counter a good portion of the deficit at many schools, but parents of high school athletes or the athletes themselves are often asked to chip in as well.

What some label as pay-to-play schemes have been implemented in two-thirds (33) of the United States. This is not new. The Christian Science Monitor ran a story titled “Will Pay-to-Play Ruin High School Sports?” in September 2002 and reported that even then, more than half of the 493 Wisconsin high schools polled charged athlete participation fees. That the great majority of Badger State interscholastic sport programs survived over the 8 years belies the speculation of doom and gloom. Still, it’s clear that at least in the present economic climate, schools are strapped just to provide basic classroom education. Costs for extracurricular activities and advanced-placement courses just aren’t in the budget. In Michigan, 221 of 475 schools that participated in a survey will charge pay-to-play fees this year. Schools in Virginia are similarly squeezed: Many charge $100 to take part in a sport.

And, a cautionary note to parents who believe their dollar bills guarantee Robert and Jessica time on the field or court come game time. Pay to play is a misnomer. Programs often stipulate that such fees cover only the opportunity to participate, not actually compete in events or even make the cut. Some schools do provide a partial rebate to athletes based on the number of practices attended, but that is likely little consolation at that point.

Even states and locales that have supposedly banned pay-to-play fees are finding ways to skirt the restriction. Some Atlanta metro area programs have reportedly pressured parents to donate “voluntarily.” Stephenson High’s booster club Web site once posted the following message: “If your son has made the summer cut for the football team, your dues of $500 are due no later than Saturday, August 2. No exceptions!”

And seldom do these fees cover more than the basics (transportation, team uniform, and so on). Add shoes, duffel bag, practice apparel, and other essentials and the numbers start adding up. Although a $100 to $150 fee per activity seems to be about the going rate, some schools charge as much as $1,000 for a sport like ice hockey. Recognizing how such fees could mount for parents of three or four school-age children, many school systems place a cap on each family’s required financial support. A family with three athletes participating in eight sports through the academic year might pay a flat fee of $500 rather than $1,000 if each sport charges a $125 fee.

Studies have shown that participation rates remain largely unaffected until the assessed fee approaches and exceeds $150. After that, participation declines roughly 35%. Interestingly, music lessons cost K-12 children’s parents approximately double that each year.

Most programs provide some type of financial assistance or fee waiver for athletes whose parents simply don’t have the funds. Philanthropists in the community or a portion of the booster club kitty typically cover the tab for such hardship cases.

The August 2, 2010, issue of Sports Business Journal reported that more communities are voting down referendums seeking tax increases to cover increasing extracurricular costs. As a sports administrator or coach, you’ve likely explored alternatives to taxpayer funding, recognizing how difficult it is to get financially strapped voters to pass such measures. But the reality is those car washes, popcorn sales, raffles, and other efforts to close the funding gap are seldom enough, and they’re not a long-term solution.

So, as much as you might have tried to avoid charging a fee to athletes and other students taking part in extracurricular activities, many of you found it impossible to do so without cutting corners to an unacceptable extent. And you probably took a great deal of heat for doing so. Forget the fact that the same parents lamenting such inevitable costs are paying many times your specified fee for their children to play on a summer travel team. The long-held perception is that in public schools (which constitute nearly 90% of K-12 educational institutions today), such things should be free.

Every school district and even sports program is unique, so a one-size-fits-all solution is unrealistic. Still, we know that you and others have very good ideas on the matter and have found what really works and what sounds good on paper but bears little fruit in the way of fundraising.

So we ask you to share your insights and experiences in an e-mail to me (jamess@hkusa.com), and I will post your feedback with that of your peers across the country. Don’t be concerned that your approach isn’t very innovative. If it’s effective, we want to know what it is, how it was implemented, and how it affected your program. Feel free to share a horror story, too, of the sure-to-work fundraiser that went sour. Perhaps we can help another coach and administrator avoid the same fate.

I look forward to hearing from you. Comment on Jim’s blog or on Facebook.