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Speculating on Mark Emmert’s New Stipend Proposal

Jeremy Fowler of spoke with NCAA President Mark Emmert regarding the NCAA’s next stab at a proposal to increase the amount of athletic financial aid. Last year around this time, the proposal to simply provide $2,000 more to full scholarship student-athletes was soundly rejected by the membership with over 160 override requests. That sent the working group back to the drawing board, and now it sounds like momentum is building behind a new idea.

What that idea is is still not exactly clear. But Emmert’s comments to Fowler, plus the history of the stipend plan over the last year give us enough insight to guess at what it might be. In the end, it sounds like a combination of elements from three different plans that have been discussed over the last year.

Three Need-Based Plans

Since the original proposal was rejected, the Student-Athlete Well-Being Working Group has discussed three plans, two of which were very similar but with one significant difference, and one that was completely different. Those plans were:

  1. Allow institutions to provide up to $2,000 more if all of an athlete’s financial aid did not meet the cost of attendance. Student-athletes in equivalency sports on partial scholarships could receive a stipend equal to the percentage of their scholarship (i.e. a student-athlete on a 50% scholarship could receive up to $1,000).
  2. Allow institutions to provide up to $2,000 more if all of an athlete’s financial aid and expected family contribution did not meet the cost of attendance. Student-athletes in equivalency sports on partial scholarships could receive a stipend equal to the percentage of their scholarship.
  3. Allow institutions to add $2,000 per scholarship offered to the Student Assistance Fund. That fund can be used to pay the same expenses that the $2,000 stipend was expected cover.

Expected family contribution is a number calculated by the Department of Education when a student completes the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). It represents the amount of money a student’s family should be able to put toward his or her education. It is impacted by the family’s income as well as the number of college age children in the student’s family. The EFC is the critical number used by both federal and state governments as well as by schools for all need-based aid programs.

Emmert’s Comments

Here are the elements of the plan Mark Emmert mentioned to Jeremy Fowler:

Among the plan’s options, according to Emmert:

  • Athletes applying for money through the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
  • Giving universities or conferences discretion over how funds are allocated.
  • Calculating stipend payments based on family contributions.

That sounds like option 2 above with some changes to the Student Assistance Fund to allow the money to be used for more purposes. Essentially the proposal would allow schools to provide up to $2,000 to athletes with unmet need. A student has unmet need when his or her total scholarship package plus expected family contribution does not equal the cost of attendance.

What It Means

The end result is that the new proposal is much cheaper for athletic departments, but may ultimately cause more scholarship funds to flow to athletes. To receive any money at all, athletes will need to fill out a FAFSA, which a sizable portion of athletes, even in revenue sports, do not complete. There will also be additional pressure on schools to make sure athletes have access to as much institutional need- and merit-based aid as possible. Some colleges currently refuse to consider full scholarship athletes for many awards.

But the other result is that very few revenue sport athletes will receive any of the stipend at all. One of the most recent studies found that the average gap between a full grant-in-aid (defined as tuition, required fees, room, board, and required books) and the cost of attendance in Division I came to $2,951. This was a major bone of contention with the original $2,000 stipend proposal, which is less than most studies have found the full grant-in-aid/cost of attendance gap to be.

Since 2010, Pell Grants have been awarded to students with an EFC of less than $5,273. Pell Grants are also awarded on a sliding scale. So a student with an EFC of $0 can expect to receive a full Pell Grant, currently set at $5,500/year. A student with an EFC of $5,273 will likely receive far less, maybe only a few hundred dollars per year.

For a student-athlete on a full grant-in-aid, the combination of his or her EFC and Pell Grant will likely cover the gap between the athletic scholarship and cost of attendance at most schools. Almost no full scholarship athletes, including scholarship football and basketball players will receive a stipend based on Pell Grant eligibility alone. When you add in other need-based aid programs as well as merit aid, the pool of athletes who would be eligible for any additional scholarship money shrinks even further.

Dropping the EFC limitation make large numbers of student-athletes eligible for the stipend. However, the neediest student-athletes would not get any additional money because their cost-of-attendance gap would be covered by need-based aid in most cases. Most of the money would go to student-athletes from wealthier families who did not receive any merit-based aid.

This is the Catch–22 that a need-based stipend proposal has to overcome. Include EFC as a criteria, and few if any athletes receive additional athletic aid. Don’t include EFC and it seems less “fair” that athletes more able to afford college will likely receive more aid, precisely because they can better afford college.

But the spirit of the proposal would say to not include the EFC requirement. That motivates athletic departments to get as much aid for their student-athletes as possible while allowing them to fill in the remaining gaps, regardless of a student-athlete’s family situation. Either way, the push to get more non-athletic scholarship money for athletes is likely to be the biggest benefit regardless of the particulars if the proposal looks anything like Emmert’s comments suggest it will.

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