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College Sports Scholarships: Is There a Better Way?

by on March 14, 2017 5:00 AM

As I stand next to a soccer field in Alexandria, Va., watching a group of high-school age boys run through a series of warm-up drills, it reminds me how many young people enjoy sports and want to continue participating in them when they go to college as young adults.

Nearly 8 million students currently participate in high school athletics. Go up to the next echelon and we find 294,000 students play varsity sports at the Division I and II collegiate level. And almost 60 percent of those receive some level of athletics aid or scholarship to cover all or part of the cost of their education.

Every one of those receiving aid, and many of those who aren’t, will become passably knowledgeable about the vast rules and regulations associated with athletic scholarships. And sprinkled throughout that knowledge and learning experience will be the concept of fairness and how it gets applied to those with athletic abilities.

Currently in Division I college athletics, Football Bowl Subdivision (“FBS”) schools can award athletic scholarships for official sports to a maximum of more than 200 women and men each. The approximate numbers – 236 for women and 221 for men – depends on minor variances such as whether a school offers women’s indoor volleyball or if their rifle team is co-ed. But overall those numbers are pretty even, which only seems fair, right?

If we look at how those numbers break down, we find that women’s basketball with 15 maximum allowed scholarships, men’s basketball with 13, and football with 85, are able to provide full scholarships to enough athletes to field more than a complete starting team. Three complete starting fives in the case of women’s basketball, and almost four full offenses and defenses in football. Whereas wrestling and men’s soccer only get 9.9 total scholarships for 10 and 11 starters respectively.

But football and basketball pay the bills for all the rest of the sports. As the NCAA president says, “We couldn’t do any of those other sports if we weren’t successful in football. (And) In the NCAA, we can’t support anything else we love unless we’re successful in Division I men’s basketball.” So it seems fair as well that those sports should get more scholarships.

Continuing to look at the numbers we see that a few women’s sports have scholarship limits slightly greater than their comparative men’s version: 14 versus 9.9 in soccer, 8 versus 4.5 in tennis, 12 versus 4.5 in volleyball. But there are several sports where the limits are equal or close for both sexes: 18 each in ice hockey, 12 versus 11.7 in softball/baseball. And then there are a few sports which either don’t have a counterpart for the other sex or the counterpart is not an official NCAA sport and subject to scholarship limits. Football for men is the most prominent. There’s also wrestling for men, and equestrian, field hockey, rowing and rugby for women. All of which balances out in the end so that the total numbers are close. Again, seems fair, right?

From a macro-perspective the world of collegiate athletic scholarships seems to be as fair as possible.

Unless, of course, you are one of those student athletes that ends up on the outside looking in, wondering why your sport doesn’t get allocated more scholarships, or why students who can afford to pay their own way get free rides. It’s at the micro-perspective where things seem a little unfair.

This is when you wonder if there might be a better way around the whole athletic scholarship process. A way where if you are good enough to play, you can play and it doesn’t matter whether you can afford it. And as usual, the answer lies in money. Endowment money to be specific.

In the Ivy League they don’t award athletic scholarships. Do they search out great players, compete against the best Division I schools, and win championships in various sports? Absolutely. Well, if they don’t award scholarships, how do they compete and get good players to join their teams?

Ivy League schools provide financial aid to their students-athletes – actually any of their students – only on the basis of financial need. If you are good enough to play for their team and come from a family with an average income, you’ll receive what amounts to a full scholarship. Wow, that not only sounds fantastic, it seems fairer than all of the fairness encompassed by the rules and regulations of the NCAA.

Let’s look at one Ivy as an example: Dartmouth. If you play on a Dartmouth team in a varsity sport and come from a family making $100,000 or less a year possessing typical assets, you will get free tuition. There’s your athletic scholarship. Of course the bonus is even if you don’t play on a varsity team you still get the deal.

Understand, that free tuition isn’t Dartmouth just being benevolent and giving you a free education. They get paid. They just get paid from their endowment.

Yesterday Penn State Intercollegiate Athletics unveiled their long-promised facilities master plan that is touted as a 20-year road map “to create conditions for success for its student-athletes and enhanced experiences for the Nittany Lions’ passionate and loyal students, alumni, staff and fans.”

By now there are thousands of internet comments, tweets, instagrams and other postings discussing the whens, whats and whys of this plan. The fun part of the plan (for those who enjoy numbers) will be the money associated with it – specifically, how much is it going to cost to become reality? Answer: many millions.

But the more interesting number ought to be, how much will it cost for Penn State to offer need-based aid to all of its student-athletes and dispense with the scholarship limitations imposed by the NCAA?

Let’s do some napkin math. The annual cost to attend Penn State is about $36,000 a year for in-state students and $51,000 a year for out-of-state students. We’ll project an in-state versus out-of-state student ratio of 3-2 so we’ll ballpark an average cost of $45,000. For the purposes of this calculation we’ll jettison the Commonwealth campuses and deal with an undergraduate student population of 45,000. And we’ll assume the average “need” to be 75 percent of that cost. Meaning Penn State needs endowment income of $1.5 billion a year to cover tuition so it can offer “scholarships” to all.

Penn State has a pretty good investment team so let’s project that they are able to average an annual distribution equal to 3 percent of the value of the endowment. That means the endowment needs to be $50.6 billion.

And there you have it. Do you want James Franklin, Cael Sanderson, Russ Rose, Erica Dambach, Guy Gadowsky, Char Morett-Curtiss, Patrick Chambers and all the other great Penn State coaches to be able to offer every player a “scholarship” (based on need of course)? Imagine that recruiting pitch. And imagine what results would entail.

Well, if you do, whatever number is attached to the facilities master plan, add $50.6 billion to it. Because that’s the number Penn State needs to reach for this to become a reality.

Now where’s my lottery ticket?


John Hook is the president of The Hook Group, a local management consulting firm, and active in several nonprofit organizations. Previously John spent 25 years in executive, management and marketing positions with regional and national firms. John lives in Ferguson Township with his wife Jackie and their two children.
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