Much of the hemming and hawing (to which I contributed) about the Big Ten’s proposal to increase scholarships to the full cost of attendance came from the fact that details of the proposal were scarce. Possibilities ranged from providing a stipend to every single student-athlete, including walk-ons to just providing stipends in football, both equally unlikely extremes. And this was not an issue of a lay public not understanding the issue: there were multiple reasonable proposals with widely different costs and effects on student-athlete welfare and competitive equity.
But Adam Rittenberg, ESPN’s Big Ten blogger reports that the proposal is fairly specific at this point. It would apply to all athletes on full scholarship, including athletes in equivalency sports. This means it would not be limited just to headcount sports (where generally any student-athlete on scholarship receives a full scholarship) and it would not simply increase team limits in equivalency sports. Had the latter occured, a women’s soccer team, which has 14 scholarships to split amongst a roster of around 30, would have simply been allowed to provide an extra $42,000 in aid (based on a $3,000 cost of attendance gap), without requiring it be used to cover the expenses not currently covered by a full grant-in-aid.
The final remaining question is whether this additional aid would be exempt. If it isn’t exempt, then said women’s soccer team could only provide the same 14 full grant-in-aids, but some student-athletes might count as greater than a full grant-in-aid, a 1.10 scholarship for instance. I’m reading a lot into Chad Hawley’s comment about having the “same scholarship structure” but I believe the aid will be exempt. Otherwise it would mean no additional aid to equivalency sports, which is necessary to bring anything approaching Title IX balance to this proposal. That means a student-athlete receiving a full cost-of-attendance scholarship would still be counted as if they were only receiving tuition, fees, room, board, and books.
Here’s what that would cost, how it would affect student-athlete welfare, how it affects compliance, and what the competitive impact would be.
What It Costs
Costs will be determined by which sports a school sponsors. Headcount sports are easy to calculate since generally student-athletes are on full scholarship and would receive the additional financial aid (national average of $3,000 is used):
- FBS Football: 85 x $3,000 = $255,000
- Men’s Basketball: 13 x $3,000 = $39,000
- Women’s Basketball: 15 x $3,000 = $45,000
- Women’s Gymnastics: 12 X $3,000 = $36,000
- Women’s Volleyball: 12 x $3,000 = $36,000
- Women’s Tennis: 7 x $3,000 = $21,000
For equivalency sports, the cost is not so easy to calculate. Some programs generally do not give give full scholarships, saving money in order to build deeper teams. Other programs use the bulk of their scholarship limit on full grant-in-aids for a few student-athletes, rounding out the roster with walk-ons. Plus, as we’ll see below, different financial aid rules may cause different recruiting tactics and new ways to divy up scholarship money.
How It Affects Student-Athlete Welfare
Generally it’s a major win, but there are caveats. It will mean that star student-athletes will have essentially all of their educational costs covered, with pocket money left over for a trip home or entertainment. If student-athletes are also still allowed to accept other aid, like Pell Grants, the neediest student-athletes may even be able to start helping out their families.
But if the extra cost means schools are forced to cut sports or other student-athlete services, that needs to be taken into account. That cost is significant, but not unreasonable. It’s also limited. Weight rooms and locker rooms will continually get more expensive, but it’s possible to know the actual cost of larger scholarships and it likely won’t get bigger than full cost of attendance.
Finally, if the aid is not exempted for equivalency sports, it will mean a redistribution of wealth from role players to stars. That means some athletes who are currently on scholarship wouldn’t be on scholarship, while some would be offered less than they were previously.
How It Affects Compliance
A few hundred bucks a month is not going to make a great deal of difference for student-athletes who are offered lavish gifts like cars, personal training, jewlery, trips to South Beach, etc. But according to former NFL agent Josh Luchs, many times the benefits used to recruit a student-athlete are fairly modest. If a student-athlete can no longer be swayed by pocket money, agents will be forced to provide bigger benefits to student-athletes. And bigger benefits are easier to catch.
It also changes the moral calculus when it comes to extra benefits. There continues to be a myth of the student-athlete as starving artist. Certainly, there are student-athletes who struggle to get by. But it is much more often the result of the school deciding not to provide things it is permitted to provide, rather than the rules keeping basic necessities out of student-athlete’s hands. With the full cost of attendance covered for revenue sports and star athletes, plus all the existing and legal ways to get cash to a student-athlete, it will no longer be a case of needing to take money from agents or boosters.
How It Affects Competitive Equity
Obviously if a school cannot afford to provide as many full cost-of-attendance scholarships as it wants, it will suffer competitively. How much depends on how short a school falls in this regard. For instance, if a school determines it can afford additional cost for nine basketball student-athletes on both teams, that covers a normal rotation, and the reserves will only receive a full grant-in-aid. A school might be able to remain competitive in that case. But if it cannot afford them at all, it recruits from a significant disadvantage.
More interesting is if we assume that everyone can afford the proposal or that it is paid for by the NCAA. If that’s the case, then it could increase parity by preventing traditional powers from saving on star athletes. Successful programs in equivalency sports can save scholarship by offering almost full grant-in-aids, say $28,500 if a full grant-in-aid is $30,000. Do this enough and it means being able to offer a scholarship to another role player vs. fill the spot with a walk-on.
But if stars are now giving up an additional $3,000, they’ll be less inclined to sign with the better program for less scholarship. That means an up-and-coming program could make a big recruiting coup, or it means that traditional powers will not be able to build the same type of depth they are used to.
It also highlights the value of certain positions. Chad Hawley picked a poor example of a women’s soccer goalie. Goalies in any sport tend to make less than field players, and the NCAA is no exception. In baseball and softball, the competition for top pitchers will heat up, while less of the new money goes to players in the field because they are typically less likely to be on full scholarships.
How Much of a Game Changer Is It?
Realistic versions of this proposal could have radically changed college athletics by drastically increasing how much it cost to compete in any sport. But the version of the proposal we’re likely to see from the Big Ten in the next year or two strikes a middle ground between keeping this change from bankrupting athletic departments and maximizing the additional aid to student-athletes.
The great unknown is how many programs can afford this and to what degree. And this is program rather than department specific. A school will do whatever it can to find the money for football, men’s basketball, and enough women’s sports to satisfy Title IX. The question is who can then provide this additional money to baseball/softball, soccer, and track and field.
The greatest impact is likely to be felt in Division I’s middle class: FBS schools out of the BCS conferences and the FCS. They will have the largest additional scholarship bills to meet, with comparitively low revenue to meet them. And underrated winners will be non-football departments like Gonzaga and Xavier, with strong revenue but not the massive additional expense of football.
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.