Ralph Nader’s proposal to replace athletic scholarships with need-based financial aid is a crackpot idea. Mostly because it would be totally ineffective. The cottage industry parents use to get a college scholarship would shift to also help parents maximize financial need. And a financial aid office unprepared for this transition would be raided by college coaches seeking to maximize their scholarship dollars.
But Nader has a point. The problem is he attacks the entire athletic scholarship rather than the more specific problem: the headcount.
NCAA sports have two financial aid models: headcount and equivalency. In a headcount sport, the limit is on the number of counters: student-athletes on the team who receive any athletically-related financial aid. $1 counts the same as a full scholarship, so typically only full grant-in-aids are awarded. In equivalency sports, the limit is on the total amount of athletically-related aid awarded. This limit is expressed as a number of equivalent full grant-in-aid awards, like the 4.5 allowed in men’s golf. There are also hybrid models in sports like FCS football and baseball where there are limits on both counters and equivalencies.
In a headcount sport, the coach has a binary decision: to offer aid or not. Ability to pay and academic merit count, but can quickly be overwhelmed by athletic concerns and are only baselines. Either a prospect can pay or not. A prospect can either keep up academically at the school or not. That’s something of an oversimplification, but the basic point remains.
In equivalency sports, financial need and academic merit matter much more. If a coach is recruiting two prospects of equal athletic ability and one could get half their schooling paid for through academic or need-based grants, that prospect is more valuable than the other. He or she frees up half a scholarship to get another student-athlete.
If headcounts were eliminated, particularly in the revenue sports of men’s basketball and FBS football, the recruiting process would be forced to focus more on academics and financial need. A coach who awards aid irrespective of the other financial aid a student-athlete would be out of a job quickly because the team wouldn’t be competitive. Academically gift or needy prospects would become more valuable in the recruiting process.
Under current rules, the effect would be limited due to the in ability to mix athletic aid with other forms of institutional aid, particularly need-based aid. In lieu of developing best practices for managing the relationship between financial aid and athletics, using institutional aid to augment an athletic scholarship is largely prohibited. The rules would need to be changed to exempt all non-athletically related aid, replacing those regulations with a system for ensuring athletics stays out of the awarding of non-athletically related aid.
Deregulation in this area would more closely align the goals of the athletics department and the university. To field the most competitive team, a coach would need to recruit prospects that will be offered the most non-athletically related aid. In a modern financial aid system, that means the students the admissions office, with the help of the financial aid office, is seeking to attract. Coaches would even be motivated to assist with fundraising for the general student body, since it would mean better financial aid packages for their prospects.
Student-athletes are just that: students and athletes. Ralph Nader is correct that in recruiting for revenue sports, the athlete part has overwhelmed the student part. But it is not the rewarding of athletic merit that is the problem. The problem is requiring coaches to award this aid in such a blunt and simplistic manner. More flexibilit would not just allow but essentially require football and basketball coaches to focus more on which students deserve and need a scholarship rather than just which athletes they need.
The opinions expressed on this blog are the author’s and the author’s alone, and are not endorsed by the NCAA or any NCAA member institution or conference. This blog is not a substitute for a compliance office.