Dunn says what's most alarming is the gap within conferences, not between them. Western Michigan competes in the Mid-American Conference, where he said spending ranges from about $19 million to $28 million, keeping the conference competitive (WMU has to subsidize about half its athletic budget). But in conferences like the Big 12, the gap between relatively low spenders like Iowa State and Kansas State, and mammoth programs like Texas and Oklahoma, is now around $80 million. Such gaps create big incentives to cut corners.
"It's a great deal of pressure, because people want to win," he said.
The new study does not include data on private institutions, though there are only a handful in the top FBS conferences. The SEC, for instance, has just one private university: Vanderbilt.
A big driver in athletic spending has been the growth in coaching salaries and the size of athletic department staff, with compensation accounting for about one-third of athletics expenditures across the FBS. Nowhere is that on more vivid display than the SEC, which has produced the last seven BCS national football champions.
Nick Saban, whose Alabama team has won three of the last four national championships, earned $5.32 million in 2012, but every conference football coach now earns at least $2 million. Already this off-season, four losing conference programs — Tennessee, Kentucky, Auburn and Arkansas — have hired new coaches at annual salaries of between $2.2 million and $3.2 million. The University of Mississippi's Hugh Freeze, the conference's lowest-paid coach, got a $500,000 raise to $2 million, a 10 percent raise for his assistants, and a $12.5 million upgrade to practice facilities.
According to the College Board, the average financial aid package at Mississippi meets just 77 percent of student need, and just 57 percent at Alabama.