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How Financial Aid Trends Affect College Athletes

ProPublica and the Chronicle of Higher Education took a look at public colleges and their financial aid policies. The analysis showed that public colleges are following the long-time lead of private universities and shifting more of their aid to merit-based programs. Public colleges are also increasing their amount of “financial aid leveraging”: providing smaller grants to more students with better (but not stellar) academic credentials and generally less financial need.

The article focuses on the impact on low-income students, who may be squeezed out of four-year colleges by rising costs and shrinking or stagnant need-based financial aid programs. But what does this trend mean for college athletes? An example of the effect on teams can be seen in the Ivy League’s recent push to increase financial aid for the middle class. The effect on individual athletes looking to finance their education is mixed though.

For Division I football and basketball prospects, this change has little impact. NCAA rules prohibit recruited walk-ons from receiving almost all forms of institutional financial aid. Merit-based, need-based, it doesn’t matter. Athletes in the revenue sports must either earn a (typically full) scholarship or pay their own way through school.

The biggest negative impact will be on needy students in Division I’s other headcount sports: women’s volleyball, women’s gymnastics, and women’s tennis. Walk-ons in these sports may receive institutional aid. But financial aid leveraging will reduce the number of large need-based awards available. That means needy students may find it more difficult to piece together a financial aid package that makes their chosen school affordable if they are not offered one of the limited full grant-in-aids.

For equivalency sports, meaning the rest of sports in Division I and all of Division II, this shift is good news for many athletes. Because full grants-in-aid are not the norm in equivalency sports, many athletes look to combine their partial athletic scholarship with other sources of aid to pay for school. But both Division I and Division II rules limit this mixing and matching. In general, when need-based aid is combined with athletic scholarship dollars, the need-based aid counts as it if were athletic scholarship. But merit-based aid does not count if the athlete meets certain academic criteria.

Here are two quick calculations to illustrate the point.

  • Athlete A: $10,000 athletic scholarship + $10,000 need-based scholarship / $20,000 full grant-in-aid = 1.0 equivalency
  • Athlete B: $10,000 athletic scholarship + $10,000 merit based scholarship / $20,000 full grant-in-aid = .50 equivalency

So while financial aid leveraging is causing larger awards to be chopped up into smaller grants, if the original awards were need-based than athletes might not be allowed to accept them since they would have pushed the team’s total equivalency over the limit. An athlete who is receiving any athletic scholarship might get more out of a $3,000 merit-based grant than a $12,000 need-based grant because the former can be combined with the athlete’s athletic scholarship at no penalty to the program.

For walk-ons, the news is just as bad in equivalency sports as it is in headcount sports. If an athlete is not receiving athletic scholarship dollars that might be packaged with other institutional aid, financial aid leveraging just means less money available for each individual student. The impact in Division III is also not likely to be much since many are smaller private schools not chasing national rankings or were more likely to be awarding financial aid in this matter already.

These types of higher education trends are the type of thing the NCAA can do little to stop, but should be aware of and either react to quickly or try and get out ahead of them. In this case, with fewer large need-based awards being granted by Division I and II members, the NCAA should give serious consideration to exempting all non-athletics aid and limiting the scholarship rules and limits to athletics aid only.

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