James Madison’s Record $53M in Student Fees Tops All Public Schools

James Madison University has found virtually instant success at the FBS level, both in football and men’s basketball. The Dukes have also relied on an unprecedented amount of funding direct from other JMU students.

The James Madison athletic department spent $68 million on athletics in fiscal 2023 and reported funding $53.3 million of it via mandatory student fees, charged annually to every JMU student as part of their tuition. It’s by far the largest sum of any public school in the country, $23 million more than Old Dominion’s student fee subsidy.

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JMU’s undergraduate tuition is $30,790 per year for out-of-state students and $13,576 per year for in-state students. The mandatory student fee, which is included in those totals, is $5,662 for 2024. That fee covers a number of things—transportation services, student health initiatives, facility maintenance—but by far the biggest piece, $2,362 per student per year, is earmarked for funding athletics.

The JMU men’s basketball team faces Wisconsin ($0 in student fees) at 9:40 p.m. ET Friday in the first round of the NCAA Tournament.

Not only is the $53.3 million tops in 2023, it’s also the highest total Sportico has seen in six-plus years of sourcing annual revenue/expense reports for every public athletic department in college football’s top division. It’s bigger than the total 2023 athletics operating budget for more than 40 FBS schools, and almost equal to James Madison’s entire athletics budget the prior year ($57.8 million).

Framed another way, the student fee total is nearly 4x the revenue actually generated by the athletic department in fiscal 2023 ($13.4 million) from tickets, media rights, donations and other income. The Dukes played their first season in the Sun Belt conference in 2022, part of a transition from FCS to FBS, and are yet to receive a full share of conference distributions.

JMU is required by state law to limit its student fees to a specific percentage of athletics funding—that limit was 70% in its previous conference, and is now 55% as a member of the Sun Belt. An athletics spokesman said in an email that the school was on a state-approved timeline to meet that requirement, and attributed the growing student fee total to a few specific budget increases.

First, he said, the fee collections increased to cover $4 million in deferred debt payments, which the school was permitted to push back to alleviate budgeting concerns during the COVID-19 pandemic. Second, JMU has leaned on student fees to help cover other revenue increases that might eventually be covered by the full Sun Belt revenue share. Those increases include $1.7 million associated with a state-mandated salary raise, and $1.3 million in increased travel costs.

“JMU’s plan to manage student fee revenue was presented to and approved by the state prior to its Sun Belt move,” the spokesman said in an email. “The university is employing that plan, which allows for seven years to be fully compliant with the 55% limit.”

Only a small number of the richest athletic departments in college sports finance their operations without using additional funds from the academic side of the institution. For the vast majority that rely on money from other parts of campus, they report those subsidies in four main categories: direct institutional support, indirect institutional support (athletics debt service, rent), government support, and student fees.

Of those four, the direct institutional support is the largest among the country’s biggest public athletic departments, with more than $1 billion reported transferred in this manner by the FBS public schools in 2023, according to Sportico’s college finance database. Student fees are the second largest, at $668.5 million.

JMU’s football team went 11-1 this past regular season and spent part of the year ranked in the AP poll. The men’s basketball team went 31-3, winning the Sun Belt tournament and earning its first March Madness berth since 2013.

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