Microscholarships Could Be New Territory for NCAA

Brad Wolverton of the Chronicle of Higher Education followed up an article about a new merit aid concept called microscholarships by asking whether it might make a major impact on athletics:

If coaches created a clearer path for athletes in describing what they were looking for—both on and off the field—it could help more athletic departments improve their chances of getting what they want in those players. It could also help coaches find out who’s really serious about their programs.

Microscholarships are small amounts of money awarded to students for behaviors that make them better candidates for college, like taking standardized tests or doing well in academic subjects. The idea is being pushed by Raise, an online service which will administer these programs for colleges.

Raise’s website instantly reveals that it will be a thorn in the side of the NCAA and compliance officers. One of the activities that can earn scholarships dollars is “participating in sports and clubs”. That makes at least some of the money coming through Raise athletically related financial aid, and since this aid may be institutional aid, having recipients go on to play collegiate sports will require some complicated financial aid math and potentially some difficult decisions.

Wolverton suggests a system where coaches and athletic departments use a similar system to award some of their scholarship dollars to prospective and current athletes. But a system like this makes even more sense for the NCAA to run as a national supplemental athletic scholarship program.

It would be the carrot to the stick which Wolverton details:

Although the NCAA’s academic hurdles force students to prioritize their classwork, a merit-aid concept like this could allow coaches to keep recruits on an even straighter path academically. That would benefit students no matter where they chose to go to college, and probably would keep more of them among the collegegoing ranks.

For instance, the NCAA has known for some time that prospects who fall behind on their core course work during high school do worse than other students even if they eventually catch up and meet NCAA initial eligibility standards. Thus the requirement coming in 2016 that prospects must complete 10 core courses by the start of their senior year in high school if they want to compete as freshmen.

But a microscholarship program could promote a smooth core course progression as well. Prospective student-athletes could be award small scholarship amounts for enrolling in and passing four courses every year, with extra money for getting ahead of the game. Taking early and multiple standardized tests, registering early with the NCAA Eligibility Center, and providing documents to the Eligibility Center on time could also be rewarded. This is just one area where the NCAA could apply more positive pressure using small scholarship amounts.

The money could be used to augment an athlete’s scholarship or for athletes already receiving cost of attendance, could be used to reduce the burden on the institution, who could then use the recouped scholarship funds for things like summer school. And while adding additional functions to the NCAA Eligibility Center should not be taken lightly, this is the type of program where the EC seems like the most logical home and has a great enough impact to warrant the investment and growing pains.

Finding the funding for such a scholarship program could be problematic, especially since it could end up in the millions of dollars given the 75–100 thousand prospective student-athletes that enroll each year. The most likely answer would be an increase in the NCAA’s TV contract for the Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament. A previous increase in rights fees lead to the creation of the Special Assistance Fund and Student-Athlete Opportunity fund; a microscholarships fund could be considered to be the prospective student-athlete’s version of the current Student Assistance Fund.

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