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Fixing the NCAA’s Approach to Non-Athletics Aid

Anyone with even the slightest interest in college athletics knows that the NCAA limits the amount of athletically related financial aid that can be awarded to both individual athletes as well as collectively to a team. An athlete’s athletic scholarship may only cover the costs that make up a full grant-in-aid, i.e. tuition, mandatory fees, room, board, and required course books. Teams are limited either by the number of counters they can have (athletes that receive any athletic scholarship), a total number of equivalent full scholarships that are spread amongst the team, or a hybrid of both.

But a number of NCAA financial aid rules conspire to impose limits on non-athletics aid. In equivalency sports, one NCAA rule makes it very difficult to mix and match a university’s different scholarship programs with athletics aid:

(a) Once a student becomes a counter, the institution shall count all institutional aid (per Bylaw received for room, board, tuition and fees, and books up to the value of a full grant-in-aid.  Exempted government grants per Bylaw 15.2.5 and exempted institutional aid per Bylaw specifically are excluded from this computation.

In addition to exempted government grants and exempted institutional aid (one big example are tuition waivers for employees who have worked for the school for at least five years), academic scholarships for incoming freshmen, transfers, and continuing athletes are also excluded. Provided, however, the athlete meets certain academic criteria.

In the revenue sports of football and basketball, institutional aid is limited even further:

In football or basketball, a student-athlete who was recruited (see Bylaw 15.02.8) by the awarding institution and who receives institutional financial aid (as set forth in Bylaw granted without regard in any degree to athletics ability does not have to be counted until the student-athlete engages in varsity intercollegiate competition (as opposed to freshman, B-team, subvarsity, intramural or club competition) in those sports.

While the bylaw is stating the conditions under which institutional aid does not cause a football or basketball player to become a counter, what the bylaw is implies is the problem. If a football or basketball player is recruited, receives institutional financial aid, and ever plays, he or she has to be counted as if they were awarded a full athletic scholarship.

These bylaws do not actually limit non-athletics aid to athletes. What they do is cause financial aid totally unrelated to athletics to be counted as if it were athletics aid under many common conditions. As a result, athletes are unable to put together the best deals. An equivalency sport athlete cannot seek out the best non-athletics financial aid package then negotiate with the coach for athletics aid on top. And a football or basketball player cannot be a walk-on at a school and still accept almost any financial assistance from the university.

Over the years, there have been a number of attempts to reform these rules. The most recent was a package of financial aid proposals passed in 2011. But they largely worked at the margins, exempting more categories of grants and scholarships without fixing the core problem. That solution, to simply only count athletics aid when determining team scholarship limits, has been elusive.

One roadblock is harder to get past some schools simply have more non-athletics aid to give than others. Private schools and schools with wealthy endowments would benefit the most. The only fix is for schools to start accepting more of their inherent differences rather than trying to legislate them away.

But another can be addressed through NCAA legislation, and already has been in Division III. The other major objection to deregulating non-athletics aid is a lack of trust amongst schools. Schools fear that their competitors will start using athletics criteria to award non-athletics aid. This recently resulted in a major violation for Pepperdine, which had been flagging applicants as athletes before they were awarded financial aid packages.

Just like almost anyone involved in college sports knows about Division I’s financial aid limits, most know that Division III prohibits the awarding of athletic scholarships. This includes financial aid programs seemingly unrelated to athletics but where being an athlete is ultimately considered (hint: any scholarship that includes a criteria for “leadership” considers athletic participation). But beyond that, Division III watches not just how or why scholarships are awarded, but also how much and to whom:

The percentage of the total dollar value of institutionally administered grants and scholarships (or gift aid) awarded to student-athletes shall be closely equivalent to the percentage of student-athletes within the student body. A differential is defensible if it can be demonstrated that the average need of the student-athletes at the institution is equivalently greater than the average need of other students.

This is reported to the NCAA by Division III schools and tracked on a per-fund basis. A very common major violation in Division III over the last few years has involved grants for international students, especially Canadians. A disproportionate number of Canadian students at Division III schools just happened to play hockey. In most of these cases, the athletes had to choose between their sport and their scholarship.

This concept, that student-athletes should receive roughly their fair share of the non-athletics and not significantly more, could be used as a new limit on non-athletics aid in Division I. Or preferably, it would not be an express limit but would be a trigger for more extensive investigation and auditing. Schools would report the necessary financial aid information to the NCAA each year, and those with red flags would be subject to a detailed look at their financial aid processes as well as individual awards to athletes.

This may seem like another significant burden for administrators. But partly it would replace the current monitoring done to make sure athletes are not receiving financial aid which counts. And if tiny Division III colleges and athletic departments can manage the challenge, larger Division I programs should be able to handle it.

Because what these limits do is reduce the value of the student part of the student-athlete. A football coach may focus more on need and academics if it means an athlete can be a walk-on rather than a scholarship player. Coaches in equivalency sports will favor needy and smart recruits as well, since they allow them to spread their scholarship dollars further. This will be especially important in sports under significant scholarship pressure like baseball.

Given how contentious this idea has been in the past, it will be a major battle if the Rules Working Group goes forward with as it is once again under consideration. But there are ways, methods proven in other divisions, to assuage some of the concerns with freeing up more aid to athletes. Even if the idea of fearing more scholarships for athletes seems odd in the first place.

Barton County Community College Athletic Recruiting.

Bard College Athletic Recruiting.

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