Breaking Division III's 'Bedrock' Rule

College -- with a vice president playing a key role -- awarded thousands in financial aid based on athletic criteria, violating Division III's core principle. Such violations seem to be spreading.

July 1, 2016
 
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Baruch College, a Division III institution in the City University of New York system, awarded more than $250,000 in impermissible financial aid to athletes over the course of five years, the National Collegiate Athletic Association announced Thursday.

Much of the aid was awarded based on athletic ability -- a violation of what is frequently referred to as Division III’s “bedrock principle.”

While Division III colleges are allowed to weigh athletic considerations in deciding whom they admit, the rules adopted by the division’s members bar them from doing so when packaging financial aid. According to the NCAA, 13 Baruch athletes received financial aid based on athletic criteria between 2010 and 2015, and another 11 players received one-time cash awards of $500 for participating in athletics.

In one case, an athlete received scholarships that required her to demonstrate “high academic performance,” though her entrance test score was 300 points below the average for incoming freshmen. In another, a player received $13,547 from institutional grants and $14,362 from named scholarships. The athlete’s visa documentation, however, had certified that her parents would contribute $22,000 per year for her education, and she had also received a $10,000 merit scholarship from the college.

“Despite [the athlete’s] certification of extensive financial resources,” the NCAA’s report stated, “the institution designated her as a ‘financial hardship’ case.”

In addition, in-state residency status was granted to athletes who did not meet the requirements, and players were offered jobs as resident assistants as part of their financial aid packages. For violating NCAA rules, Baruch College received a one-year postseason ban for its women’s basketball team and four years of probation.

In many of the violations, the former women’s head basketball coach and former vice president of student affairs -- who are not named in the report -- were directly involved in awarding the aid.

“The former head coach stated he knew athletic ability or participation could not be considered when giving financial aid to student-athletes and that Division III rules prohibited him from attempting to change financial aid packages,” Gerald Houlihan, a member of the Division III Committee on Infractions, said. “However, he directly influenced decisions that resulted in student-athletes receiving impermissible financial aid based on athletics.”

An Inside Higher Ed analysis in April found that dozens of Division III colleges in recent years have offered financial aid based on athletic ability. And the number of those cases seems to be increasing, according to the NCAA’s database of what the organization considers to be “major infractions.”

Between 1953 and 2006, Division III had 13 major violations involving financial aid. In the decade since, there have been more than two dozen cases.

Last year, Rose-Hulman Institute of Technology was found to have awarded nearly $40,000 in financial aid based on athletics, and Emory and Henry College was found to have awarded nearly $80,000 to 27 athletes using athletic criteria. In 2014, the University of Wisconsin at Superior was found to have awarded 196 athletic ability-based scholarships totaling $393,575 between 2008 and 2013. During that same time period, Denison University offered impermissible financial aid ranging from $1,443 to $9,000 per year to 24 athletes.

The major infractions database does not include more minor violations, what the NCAA calls secondary infractions, meaning the total number of financial aid infractions is even higher. Division III institutions are required to use an annual reporting process to compare the financial aid packages of freshman and transfer athletes with the aid packages of freshman and transfer nonathletes. The most recent NCAA report about this process found that between 2005 and 2014, 61 Division III institutions considered athletic ability when packaging financial aid.

“We’re certainly concerned with an increase,” Houlihan said. “We’d like to see there be no cases of violations. Hopefully the spurt of recent decisions will go toward eliminating future violations.”

While Dan Dutcher, president of Division III, said he believes many institutions that are breaking the rules are doing so inadvertently, there continues to be some disagreement among the division’s members about the rules banning athletic scholarships.

A 2008 survey found that nearly two-thirds of members said “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.” A 2013 survey found that the desire for change has waned somewhat, though about half of members still said they disagreed that “the current prohibition of considering leadership in athletics (e.g., team captain) in the awarding of financial aid to student-athletes is appropriate.”

About 21 percent of members said the NCAA needed to provide more education about financial aid rules. Baruch’s former vice president said that he did not receive education on NCAA rules, and that the violations were inadvertent. But, according to the NCAA, it was a desire to win that led to the violations.

“The former vice president wanted to raise the profile of athletics at the college and, as a part of that effort, he was closely involved in the recruitment, admission and awarding of financial aid for prospects and student-athletes,” Houlihan said. “Even though he knew that under Division III rules, financial aid based on athletics could not be provided to student-athletes, he approved, directed or influenced the impermissible financial aid and benefits provided to student-athletes over the course of five years.”

According to the NCAA’s report, the vice president “put a lot of pressure on results” and “wanted winning teams to compete [at the same level as New York University] and to be able to make NCAA tournaments.” Winning had “become the priority.”

The former vice president became directly involved in athletics and the recruiting process, meeting with recruits and monitoring coaches’ spreadsheets of prospective athletes. According to Baruch’s director of admissions, if her office “didn’t give [coaches] the answer they wanted to hear” regarding financial aid rules, they would go to the former vice president.

In 2014, the vice president was removed from overseeing athletics. He left the college in 2015 for a job at another institution. In its report, the committee said that it had not previously seen a high-level campus official have such "breadth and scope of responsibilities" in an infractions case. 

"As I stated unambiguously to the NCAA," Mitchel Wallerstein, the college's president, said in a statement, "Baruch College accepts and takes full responsibility for the fact that some improper benefits were made available to a limited number of student-athletes during the period from 2010-2015."

Baruch’s former vice president is not the only member of Division III who has placed a greater emphasis on winning in recent years. In a 2008 NCAA survey, about 30 percent of Division III said “the ultimate measure of success in an athletics program is participation in national championships.”

In 2013, more than half of the division agreed with that statement.

"It is odd to see Division III schools engaging in this behavior, given that there are not huge revenue sources available for championships, but sport creates a passion among many administrators because they believe it is the most efficient manner in which to build their campus brand," Mark Nagel, professor of sports and entertainment management at the University of South Carolina, said. "It is a bit sad to see this type of behavior at Division III, particularly since the lack of athletic aid is a cornerstone of the entire division. If there are more and more of these cases at a level in which sport revenues are not large, that says a lot about how some college administrators are willing to alter their campus’ supposed core principles." 

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