Redefining Division III

Talk of splitting the NCAA competitive level in two is dead. But philosophical differences among the division's members remain, prompting a reevaluation of some of their bedrock principles.
October 2, 2008

Wise men say, “The family that plays together, stays together.” Still, that does not mean there cannot be an occasional argument or two.

After nearly splitting apart, the colleges that play in Division III of the National Collegiate Athletic Association are discussing ways to stick together despite some lingering philosophical differences among them. On the table, and potentially vulnerable to change, are some of the group's bedrock principles, including the division's longstanding prohibition of awarding any financial aid tied to a student's athletic participation or ability.

The Division III Presidents Council released a report last week outlining some of the key issues that the division must address as its membership continues to swell, particularly given that proposals to create either a subdivision within it or a completely separate Division IV failed last spring. Although a recent survey of the membership revealed that 82 percent supported maintaining the division’s structure and there is generally a “widespread affinity” among its institutions, it also revealed a number of divergent views concerning supposedly concrete divisional philosophies.

Perhaps most striking is the report’s notation that nearly two-thirds of the surveyed members of the division responded that “consideration of leadership in athletics (e.g., team captain) in the awarding of financial aid should be allowed provided it is consistent with the consideration of leadership in other student activities.” This majority opinion runs counter to the division’s philosophy statement, which notes that member institutions “shall not award financial aid to any student on the basis of athletics leadership, ability, participation or performance.”

While Division III did not always prohibit consideration of athletic ability in financial aid packages -- in the 1970s the division allowed institutions to award scholarship aid up to an athlete’s need level -- it has gradually adopted legislation through the years making the scholarship ban one of its defining principles. In light of this, the recent poll figures have appalled some members of the Presidents Council.

“I nearly fell off my chair when I saw that in the survey,” says John Fry, president of Franklin & Marshall College and chair of the President’s Council. “When one of your bedrock principles is in question, that’s more than a philosophical difference. What would separate us from Divisions I and II? One of the big differences between us is how we view financial aid. We put student first and athlete next. Frankly, if that changes, I don’t know what we’re doing.”

Loyalists to the division’s current philosophy statement argue that such a change to its financial aid considerations could provide a “slippery slope” down which further aid-related changes could follow. Although the report’s survey indicates great interest in this possibility, some members of the President’s Council maintain that discussions during their recent meetings indicate this is a fringe issue for most of the division’s athletic conferences.

The report notes that, among the division’s 442 member institutions, many cannot make sense of the pros and cons of membership in Division II versus Division III. It also argues that, as the division has grown, it is no longer fair to say that most of its members are small four-year liberal arts colleges. The division's newer members have significantly smaller enrollments and sports sponsorships than its long-standing members. Additionally, almost two-thirds of its new members came from the National Assocation for Intercollegiate Athletics, with the remainder being unafilliated institutions, newly minted four-year institutions or those who have never before offered varsity athletics.

Some newer members and many considering the division, the report states, assume that running a Division III program is less expensive because of the scholarship ban. While the report notes that this assumption is false in many cases, some argue that enrollment pressures might cause a tuition-strapped institution -- such as many of the new Division III members -- to favor offering some sort of financial aid that considers athletic ability. Partial financial aid for athletic leadership might help these institutions garner more recruits and, in time, more revenue from their tuition. These institutions have a place, loyalists argue -- just not in Division III.

“If financial aid is driving enrollment, then there’s another option for those schools, and that’s Division II,” says James T. Harris, president of Widener University and a member of the Division III President’s Council. “I can’t foresee a day when Division III would allow athletic scholarships. I don’t think that’s a reasonable future.”

Others, however, see merit in loosening some of the division’s more stringent restrictions, including those regulating financial aid. Dick Rasmussen, executive secretary of the University Athletic Association -- with members such as Emory University and the University of Chicago, the only Division III conference to have all Association of American Universities members -- says there is some interest in reconsidering the financial aid stance of the division within his conference, though it has yet to take a formal position. Competing principals within the division’s philosophy statement, he asserts, might justify such a change. The division’s complete prohibition of athletic financial aid, he says, violates its mandate that all member institutions “assure that athletics participants are not treated differently from other members of the student body.”

“You can make a rational argument that allowing the consideration of leadership in athletics to be considered alongside leadership in any other areas of student interest honors the principle of treating student athletes like everyone else,” Rasmussen says. “Still, the question becomes, what’s the trade-off?”

Although he says members of his conference were comfortable with Division III as it now exists, Rasmussen says the division could allow its members more autonomy. The division originally had more confidence that its members would follow its philosophy, he argues, but during the past 15 or so years it has chosen to become more restrictive and intrude on institutional autonomy.

This genesis of this change, he says, was the passage of a 1988 NCAA proposal that eliminated the consideration of athletics ability from any financial aid packaging in Division III, effectively overturning the prior policy of offering some need-based aid to athletes. From this decision forward, Rasmussen says, the outright scholarship ban became one of the division’s hallmark principles, reaffirmed by members through multiple challenges.

Even though the latest membership survey indicates strong interest in loosening the division's financial aid policy, some members of the Presidents Council say the subject never garnered strong interest in their many town hall meetings with institutions throughout the spring and summer. Still, the Presidents Council has suggested that a "supermajority" be required to make further changes to the division's financial aid standards. Some, however, question this further regulation.

Bob Malekoff, assistant professor of sports studies at Guilford College, says the division needs to be careful that there is not an over-reliance on legislation to affirm its basic tenets. In addition to the Presidents Council's request for a "supermajority," he also points to a relatively new reporting process by which institutions affirm their adherence to existing financial aid standards. Noting that some violators have been discovered since its 2004 introduction, the report states that this process looks for irregularities between financial aid packages for athletes and non-athletes.

Malekoff argues that the division’s open-ended eligibility standard -- “assure that academic performance of student-athletes is, at a minimum, consistent with that of the general student body” -- and its strict financial aid policy might constitute a double standard. Individual institutions are left to determine what dictates adherence to academic eligibility standards, while an official reporting process ensures adherence to financial aid standards. By virtue of the reporting process' very existence, Malekoff says, some members might argue that their overall responsibility to regulate themselves has receded.

“It’s interesting that for academic issues, we trust everyone to use their best judgment and value institutional autonomy,” says Malekoff, who advised the College Sports Project, an Andrew W. Mellon Foundation study of Division III athletics. “But, on the financial aid issue, we don’t have this rule. Maybe there is a lack of trust. Still, maybe there isn't a lack of trust but just an over-reliance on legislation.”

Ultimately, Malekoff says, tuition-driven institutions argue a lack of athletic financial aid might drive away recruits, while institutions that do not rely as much on tuition argue that any scholarship consideration of this kind might cheapen the Division III experience. While this is one of the primary divides in the division, Malekoff acknowledges the existence of what he calls "strange bedfellows" who support a more liberal financial aid policy, such as the wealthy institutions of the UAA. For these institutions, the issue seems to represent a philosophical difference in their interpretation of the division's standards. Regardless of the differences of opinion on this matter, all sides in the division agree it must address its growing numbers before such growth becomes untenable.

Dan Dutcher, an NCAA staff member who is the Division III vice president, said all the issues raised by the President’s Council’s report -- including but not limited to financial aid considerations -- will be discussed in great detail by conferences and individual institutions in advance of the January 2009 NCAA Convention in Washington. Now that the division has put aside the discussion of splitting apart, he said it needs to address the issues it will face as it continues to grow together. While Dutcher said he does not think the financial aid piece will change in the coming years, he said he does not think the differences of opinion will splinter the division.

“Everybody believes in the Division III philosophy and endorses it in concept, but with 400-plus institutions it’s not surprising that there would be differences in its application,” Dutcher said. “We’re trying to be sure everyone understands the philosophy and to try to find some middle ground, recognizing that it’s a very large division and diverse in terms of institutional and academic mission."


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