Proclaiming the growing disconnect between college sports and universities themselves is a popular pastime these days. Coaching salaries, facilities, per-student spending, reform efforts, and treatment of athletes all provide examples of how athletics are fundamentally different than the rest of the college to which they are attached.
But outside of all but the most radical reform plans, college athletes will still have to be enrolled in college and someone will have to pay for them to be there. Two big debates are colliding that could have a big impact on college athletics, especially in all but the revenue sports.
In the next few months, the Supreme Court will issue its decision in Fisher v. The University of Texas. That case is the most recent challenge to the use of race in college admissions, following in the footsteps of Regents of the University of California v. Bakke and Grutter v. Bollinger. Because of the changing composition of the Supreme Court since the Grutter decision in 2003, many believe the use of race in college admissions could be severely restricted, if not outlawed completely. College presidents are more optimistic.
According to the Inside Higher Ed poll, by 77 percent to 23 percent, college presidents believe the U.S. Supreme Court will stop short of imposing “major limits on the consideration of race in the admissions process.” Some 51 percent of presidents suggest the court will impose only “modest limits” and 26 percent expect the justices to “uphold current policies.”
Changing how race is used in admissions is not likely to have a major direct impact on college athletics. Status as a recruited athlete is used in admissions at almost every Division I or Division II school, in some cases trumping other considerations. Some walk-ons that the athletic department does not go to bat for may find it more or less difficult to get into school, but that effect is on the margins.
The bigger impact will be from the response if Fisher results in heavy restrictions on race-based admissions criteria, if not their outright prohibition.
By contrast, enthusiasm for class-based affirmative action was stronger: 39 percent said they agreed or strongly agreed that they would place more consideration on applicants’ socioeconomic status; 42 percent would place more consideration on first generation status, and 43% would spend more on financial aid. Evidence from states where affirmative action has already been banned suggests the percentages of universities that switch to class will be even higher.
The financial aid is the most important aspect for college athletics. At the same time, the debate over who that financial aid is going to is heating up as well. On the one hand, states are shifting grant programs from need-based programs to merit-based aid:
Though the trend rarely gets much attention and is obscured by increases in federal grants to poor students, 27 states have created some sort of merit-aid program since Georgia launched its own in 1993. Of those, 13 states based over half of their grant money on merit in 2010–2011, the latest year available. In Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, South Dakota and Georgia, more than 85% of grants were merit-based.
In total, merit aid now accounts for 29% of the $11 billion in state financial aid. But the response is coming from colleges who may recommit to need-based financial aid:
But colleges’ reliance on discounts rather than their own distinctive qualities in competing for students devalues higher education, says Tori Haring-Smith, one of the presidents who released the pledge, still in draft form. Merit-aid bidding wars signal to students and parents that college is overpriced, says Ms. Haring-Smith, who leads Washington & Jefferson College.
More aid available for all students means more aid available to student-athletes. The NCAA drastically restricts non-athletically related financial aid to football and men’s basketball player; walk-ons are generally paying their own way. But in equivalency sports, schools have begun to get more creative with financial aid packages. Athletic scholarship money is mixed with other forms of aid to make the college affordable enough for the athlete to commit.
In recent years, the NCAA has begun the laborious task of deregulating non-athletics aid. All federal- and state-funded financial aid, both need- and merit-based, is now exempt from team financial aid limits. Institutional financial aid is still more limited. Except for merit-based aid awarded to athletes that hit certain academic benchmarks, non-athletics aid from the school counts against team limits when mixed with athletic scholarship dollars.
But the NCAA is once again considering changing that. The idea of counting only athletic scholarships against team limits comes up every couple of years. It generally does not go far for two reasons: some schools have a lot more financial aid than others and schools fear their competitors pressuring the financial aid office into awarding more money to athletes.
If the Fisher case leads to limits on considering race in admissions and thus big increases in financial aid, and the NCAA succeeds in eliminating rules that limit the use of non-athletics aid in recruiting, it would mean big changes for equivalency sports. Where that aid goes, toward need- or merit-based programs would dictate who coaches focus their recruiting on. But unless tuition itself comes down, the middle-class student with median grades and test scores will be the most expensive, and thus least desirable recruit (all else being equal).
Changes could impact even the revenue sports, if the NCAA’s draconian limits are lifted. If there is enough financial aid available to make school affordable or even match a full grant-in-aid, more prospects may opt to be walk-ons at the school of their choice, rather than picking from the schools willing to offer them a scholarship. The odds of this happening are even better in basketball for players who are virtually guaranteed to be one-and-done. They could cover the gap with student loans that would be paid off immediately after joining the professional ranks.
There are a lot of steps needed to get from the Supreme Court’s upcoming decision to a shift in the balance of power in a sport. But the possibility exists for a big enough shock to the system that it presents an opportunity for programs smart enough to recognize the change and take the initiative. And if programs end up targeting more financial needy athletes or better students amongst the pool of prospective student-athletes, that brings them a little closer to the mission of the university.