Mind the (Scholarship) Gap

Major conferences debate whether athletics grants should be expanded to cover full cost of college attendance; critics say move could create further inequities.
June 10, 2011

Several major athletic conferences are discussing how they might bridge the gap between what a “full” athletic scholarship covers and the actual cost of college attendance. This gap, depending on the institution, can range from $200 to nearly $11,000 annually.

League officials have been vague about exactly what they hope to accomplish with the change. The movement to boost the value of athletic scholarships to cover travel, child care and other cost-of-living expenses like food and clothing appears to be motivated not by a desire to help needy athletes, but by a desire to share some of the wealth that big-time college sports generates and to fight off criticism that colleges are profiting on the backs of unpaid athletes. It remains unclear, however, what impact such a move would have on college sports. It is possible that offering enhanced scholarships could undermine the push among some players' advocates to have colleges actually pay players for their service.

Some players’ advocates applaud the idea as a first step to what they really favor: paying players outright. Still, critics from financial aid officers to officials from smaller athletic conferences worry that such a change would spur further inequity between the “haves” and “have-nots” in college sports and between athletes and non-athletes on many campuses.

James E. Delany, commissioner of the Big Ten, spurred a long-simmering debate last month with remarks he made at his conference’s spring meetings.

“Forty years ago, you had a scholarship plus $15 a month laundry money,” said Delany, according to ESPN. “Today, you have the same scholarship, but not with the $15 laundry money. How do we get back more toward the collegiate model and a regulatory system that is based more on student-athlete welfare than it is on a level playing field, where everything is about a cost issue and whether or not everybody can afford to do everything everybody else can do?”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association defines a “full" athletic scholarship as “financial aid that consists of tuition and fees, room and board, and required course-related books.” By contrast, the NCAA and most college financial aid offices define cost of attendance as “an amount calculated by an institutional financial aid office, using federal regulations, that includes the total cost of tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and other expenses related to attendance at the institution.”

Last fall, the National College Players Association and the graduate program in sports management at Ithaca College released a study documenting the gap between a full athletic scholarship and the cost of attendance at every Division I institution. It found that, in 2009, those athletes receiving a full athletic scholarship had to cover an average “scholarship shortfall” of $2,951 annually. For an athlete who stays for his full five years of college eligibility, that amounts to $14,755.

There are six “headcount” sports, or those where one scholarship is awarded for one athlete, in Division I — men’s and women’s basketball; Football Bowl Subdivision football; women’s gymnastics; women’s volleyball and women’s tennis. The remainder are “equivalency” sports, in which teams can award up to the value, or equivalency, of a certain number of “full” scholarships. Most athletes on these teams receive partial scholarships.

Big-Time Conferences Push Idea

Chad Hawley, associate commissioner of compliance for the Big Ten, explained that the officials in his conference were merely at the discussion stage about raising the value of a full athletic scholarship to the actual cost of college attendance. In theory, this would not apply to partial scholarships. He also said that such a change would require a modification of NCAA rules, given that the definitions above limit the amount and use of an athletic scholarship.

“We should have rules that look more at what’s best for student equity welfare,” Hawley said. “Still, we're not sure whether the idea of having a full scholarship go up to cost of attendance would take away from competitive equity. One of the more notable elements of the conversation at our spring meeting was based on the notion that some institutions would be able to afford this and others would not. I don’t know that you can make a conclusion, based on that, whether there would be a competitive advantage.”

Hawley noted that he and other conference officials did not talk about limiting these awards to athletes in the “revenue-producing sports” of football and men’s basketball. Many believe that expanding the value of scholarships to only some players would create potential problems with an institution's compliance with Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972, which requires that institutions provide equitable benefits to both male and female athletes. In theory, then, such a proposal would also ensure that all players on “headcount” teams — including those women’s teams — would also receive this enhanced athletics scholarship.

There could be fringe benefits from making this change. Hawley said it might have a small impact in discouraging athletes from breaking NCAA rules by taking “extra benefits” or money under the table from agents.

The Big Ten is not alone in discussing the possibility of lobbying the NCAA to change its rules to make larger athletic scholarships possible. This was a major topic of discussion at last week’s spring meeting of the Southeastern Conference.

Steve Spurrier, football coach at the University of South Carolina, went so far as to say he would give his 70 players $300 per game from his own pocket to supplement their full scholarships. He even got several big-time football coaches — Nick Saban, from the University of Alabama; Will Muschamp, from the University of Florida; Les Miles, from Louisiana State University; Houston Nutt, from the University of Mississippi; Dan Mullen, from Mississippi State University; and Derek Dooley, from the University of Tennessee — to sign a written proposal roughly outlining the idea.

“A bunch of us coaches felt so strongly about it that we would be willing to pay it — 70 guys, 300 bucks a game," Spurrier told the Associated Press. “That's only $21,000 a game. I doubt it will get passed, but as coaches in the SEC, we make all the money — as do universities, television — and we need to get more to our players. We would like to make that happen. Probably won't, but we'd love to do it.”

Spurrier’s idea would cost a coach who plays 14 games less than $300,000 a year. Though such a payout would be doable with his multimillion-dollar contract, Spurrier admitted that not every FBS institution would be able to afford such a plan. He also acknowledged that paying out money to his players would surely raise numerous gender-equity concerns.

“I just wish there was a way to give our players a piece of the pie," Spurrier told the AP. “It's so huge right now. As you know, 50 years ago there wasn't any kind of money and the players got full scholarships. Now, they're still getting full scholarships and the money is in the millions. I don't know how to get it done. Hopefully there's a way to get our guys that play football a little piece of the pie.”

Even if Spurrier’s plan is a bit naïve — it would take a massive overhaul of NCAA rules to allow a coach to pay any sort of money directly to players outside of a scholarship — he and other coaches in the SEC say they merely signed on to the idea to “start a dialogue” about getting more for their players, either in the form of bigger scholarships or a more intricate “pay-to-play” model.

Still, don’t expect NCAA rules changes to come anytime soon. Officials have until the middle of next month to submit proposals for rules changes for this year's governance cycle. Big Ten and other conference officials say they don’t expect to have any formal proposal ready by then.

Not About Need

Though the conversation about boosting scholarships for athletes typically revolves around the narrative of a football player who simply does not have enough money both to buy books and to eat — and doubtless there are some with this high level of need — there are already safety nets for such individuals.

For example, per current NCAA rules, a player can receive non-athletics financial aid (including institutional need and merit awards) in addition to his athletics scholarship up to the cost of college attendance. The rules also permit a player to receive governmental financial aid, such as Pell Grants, in addition to his or her athletics scholarship, which can push the total aid beyond the cost of attendance.

Approximately 16 percent of Division I athletes received a Pell Grant in 2009-10, according to an NCAA official. About one-third of them were full-scholarship athletes. The rest were about evenly split between partial-scholarship athletes and those receiving no athletics aid. The NCAA does not track how many athletes receive non-athletics aid up to the full cost of attendance, though financial aid officials from some Big Ten institutions estimate that few of their athletes have their full cost of attendance covered.

The NCAA also has the Student Assistance Fund, which was created to help needy athletes cover basic and emergency expenses. Still, nearly all athletes are eligible for the awards, which are distributed on a case-by-case basis. NCAA officials estimate that about 40 percent of Division I athletes receive money from this pool at some point during their college career.

For some advocates of boosted scholarships, however, it does not matter whether a “full” scholarship athlete has “need” or not. Some believe football and men’s basketball players, especially, are entitled to the extra money, given the income they help generate for their institution.

“I don’t think this should be about need,” said Ramogi Huma, president of the National College Players Association and former University of California at Los Angeles football player. “We’re having a discussion about these athletes’ relative value in this big business…. We’d like to see a combination of increased scholarships and opening up the free market for commercial dollars. Players should be free to have an autograph signing, for instance…. But increasing scholarships doesn’t get football and basketball players close to their market value. Not even close.”

Huma and the NCPA have been pushing their own plan to boost full athletic scholarships to meet the full cost of attendance for men’s basketball and football players. Huma argues the NCAA should use $52 million in revenues from its $11 billion, 14-year deal for the broadcast rights of the Men’s Final Four Basketball Tournament to pay all Division I institutions to cover their “scholarship shortfall” for football and men’s basketball players. Huma argues that an equivalent amount of money should be given to women’s sports over all “to help comply with Title IX requirements” -- though there is no guarantee that this method would prevent a gender-equity suit or complaint.

Though Huma said it is “encouraging” to hear major conferences discuss the possibility of changing NCAA rules to allow this, he acknowledged that many smaller conferences and institutional officials are openly against the move.

“For smaller schools thinking that this might be a competitive advantage for the bigger schools: do it if you can afford it,” Huma said. “There are tons of competitive inequities already out there. For example, the bigger schools hire better coaches because they have more money. That’s an advantage. Some places have better facilities. Also, the weather is nicer some places. There’s a competitive advantage. You can’t legislate the weather. Why draw a line in the sand on this issue?”

Concerns Remain

Given that no formal proposals for raising scholarship amounts exist, few are ready to outright denounce such a plan. Still, there are already concerns about how it could even be made possible under NCAA rules and the law.

Small conference officials are not sure what to make of the calls for enhanced scholarships from the major conferences.

"We talked about it [at our spring meeting], and I think it’s like a lot of other things in higher education: the devil will be in the detail," said Wright Waters, commissioner of the Sun Belt Conference. "The conversation should really be focused on is this the right thing to do.... If we just go to a pay-for-play type thing, then I don’t think that works. If it’s just X number of dollars with no justification as to how you arrive at that number, and that’s different from campus to campus, then that's no good.… We don’t need to get into a situation where kids are shopping around institutions for another $500 per semester or something like that."

Waters was unsure if enhanced scholarships would put less-wealthy institutions, like those in his conference, at a competitive disadvantage. He said he would favor a method of awarding these enhanced scholarships that would ensure equitable value for athletes at both larger and smaller institutions, but was unable to say how such a system would work. Ultimately, though, he agreed that the NCAA needs to consider revising its rules on athletics scholarships, which he noted have not changed in what they cover since the mid-1970s.

"We need to evaluate our grant and other grants on campus, and ask, 'Where does our grant fit?' " Waters said. "Are we offering a grant that is competitive [with aid for non-athlete students] in our environment? Our grant has stayed the same for years."

Ellen J. Staurowsky, professor and chair of graduate study in sport management at Ithaca College, said this enhanced scholarship probably could not be offered only to the “revenue-producing sports” of men’s basketball and football. She noted that unless a full scholarship up to the cost of attendance was also provided to some female athletes, there could be serious Title IX issues. Staurowsky added that this enhanced scholarship probably could not be limited to certain “needy” students. She worried that if the NCAA created its own metric to determine an athlete's need, then institutions would find ways to game the system to get their athletes more aid.

A policy analyst from the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators expressed a concern that athletes receiving new, larger scholarships could be receiving a benefit that their non-athlete peers receiving aid could not. To remedy any inequity in giving, and to ensure that athletes were not being covertly paid above the cost of attendance, the NASFAA analyst suggested that the NCAA mandate that the same method be used for determining the full cost of attendance for athletes and non-athletes.

While many non-athletes are given similar aid on the basis of academic merit or talent in the fine arts, the NASFAA analyst said, relatively few institutions offer individual merit awards that cover the full cost of attendance — which would include cost-of-living expenses such as food, transportation and child care. These all-encompassing awards are primarily limited to very elite institutions. Indeed, at the University of Iowa and Ohio State University, both in the Big Ten, university officials noted that they offer no need or merit awards that cover the "full cost of attendance."

Staurowsky said she was not sure whether offering athletics aid up to the full cost of attendance would amount to giving athletes “special treatment” over regular students, and she wondered whether it might be the wrong question to ask.

“The NCAA will assert that athletes are to be treated like every other student," Staurowsky said. "At the same time, no other student is given a scholarship award on the basis of their athletics ability.... From the get-go, there are imperfect operating definitions working."

Staurowsky said she did hope that the conversation helps bust some long-held myths about athletic scholarships.

“Institutions have an opportunity to package aid in a wide range of ways,” she said. “I hope that acknowledging that a full ride is not a full ride will at least allow the college sport community to sort of rectify a mythology that has been out there.”


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