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"Student-Athletes: They're Just Like Us!"

Part of the NCAA’s mission is embodied in the idea that student-athletes, to the greatest extent possible, should be treated just like other students. The cases where student-athletes are treated better than other students are well understood as extra benefit violations. But critics of the NCAA will often point to instances where NCAA rules cause athletes to be held to a different standard or restricted in ways other students are not.

In some of these cases though, athletes are not that much different from other students or other groups of students. Here are examples of instances where it appears athletes are being singled out, but there is a similar rule or process for non-athlete students.

The NLI and Early Decision

When an athlete signs a National Letter of Intent, she agrees to attend an institution so long as the university admits her and provides her with an athletic scholarship. When a student applies to a university early decision, he agrees to attend the school if admitted and if the school provides him with enough financial aid to make it affordable.

The NLI is enforced through its basic penalty, that athletes who do not attend the school they sign with for one year lose a season of competition and must sit out for one year. Early decision is enforced through a gentlemen’s agreement amongst schools and requirements that students who are admitted early decision withdraw their other applications. But in both cases, the NLI or early decision is designed for the prospective student(-athlete) which is so sure about their college choice that they are willing to agree to a serious penalty for changing their mind.

Academic Eligibility and Federal Progress Requirements

Student-athletes are not the only ones where an outside agency sets some of the rules for academic progress. Students receiving many types of federal student aid, including Pell Grants and federal student loans, must meet academic progress requirements at least annually. Those academic progress requirements have three components:

  • A required timeframe for degree completion;
  • A required minimum GPA; and
  • A required credit hour completion percentage.

Those track closely to the NCAA’s percentage-of-degree, minimum GPA, and credit hour requirements, and in some cases (like the required GPA for freshmen and sophomores) can be a higher bar than NCAA rules.

Transfer Restrictions and Financial Aid Clawbacks

No area sets off more criticism of how athletes are treated different (and more poorly) compared to regular students than the NCAA’s permission to contact requirement. And while it is not exactly the same as denying financial aid to a student at a future school, certain academic programs make it very difficult to transfer.

Merit-based scholarships at some law schools have a clawback provision. If the student transfers, he or she must pay back the financial aid they received. Clawback provisions are more common at lower-ranked law schools. These schools are trying to combat students who accept the merit aid, do well in their first year, then transfer to another school, reducing the first school’s retention and graduation rates.

Revenue Sport Athletes and Full Pay Students

Everyone knows revenue sports fund the rest of the athletic department, with one or two teams providing a big chunk of the money for all the others. But something similar happens at just about every school with just about every student.

Colleges pay out financial aid in many forms from many sources. Some scholarships are endowed or come from donations. But some comes directly from tuition. Institutions calculate their tuition discount rate, which is basically the average amount of tuition that actually goes to fund university operations. If a school with $20,000 annual tuition has a 25% discount rate, it means each student receives (on average) $5,000 in financial aid and pays $15,000 to the university.

But a student who receives no financial aid from the institution pays the entire $20,000 into the pot. $5,000 of that would not go to fund the university, but to pay the scholarships of other students. This effect is magnified at public universities where nonresidents pay both a higher tuition rate and receive less financial aid to subsidize a cheaper education for residents.

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