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July 30, 2020

Policy Update on Merit, Needs-Based, and Athletic Scholarships in the NCAA

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On July 15th, the NCAA’s Division 1 Council voted to adopt legislation that exempts need-and-merit-based financial aid from counting against athletic scholarship limits for partial-scholarship sports. The rule is set to go into place on August 1st, and although there are currently limited details on what the legislation looks like in practice, here are some important implications.

First, this legislation does not do away with athletic scholarship limits. According to Bylaw 15.01.7 of the NCAA’s Division 1 Manual, “Division I may establish limitations on the number of financial aid awards a member institution may provide to countable student-athletes (counters).” This basically means that the NCAA imposes caps on the amount of financial aid college athletes can receive, and these limits vary by sport. 

When it comes to scholarship limits, there are basically two categories of college sports: head count and equivalency. A head count sport (football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s volleyball, women’s tennis, and women’s gymnastics) receives up to a set limit of full ride scholarships to give to athletes on those rosters. For example, a women’s volleyball team can receive up to 12 full scholarships, and funded athletes either get a full ride or nothing at all. Financial aid for equivalency athletes (those who compete in all the Division 1 sports not listed above) is a bit more complex, because a head coach of an equivalency sport receives up to the dollar value of a set number of scholarships to be divided amongst a roster as s/he sees fit. 

For example, baseball is an equivalency sport, so baseball coaches receive the equivalent of 11.7 scholarships per team at the beginning of every season, to fund their teams. For reference, a college baseball team usually averages at least twenty athletes per roster which means that baseball players (and all other equivalency athletes) typically compete for tuition OR books OR meals, OR room and board, but not all of these things. Full rides are rare in equivalency sports, and these athletes often have to come up with the rest of their financial aid from outside scholarships or student loans. Football, on the other hand is a head count sport, so football rosters receive 85 full-ride scholarships for 85 scholarship athletes. Although football rosters average over 85 players, all 85 scholarship athletes on a football team receive full rides while the remaining athletes receive no financial aid. 

Equivalency athletes are already underfunded, but in addition, according to the current phrasing of Bylaw 15.5.3.2, in equivalency sports, “once a student becomes a counter, the institution shall count all institutional aid” toward their team’s scholarship limit. The NCAA’s new ruling is significant, because it would allow an equivalency athlete to receive a merit or needs-based scholarship in addition to an athletic scholarship in order to fill the gaps in his/her financial aid package without counting against their team’s scholarship limits. 

Using baseball as an example again, let’s say that a baseball player received a tuition scholarship for athletics that accounted for a 50% scholarship. If that player were to also receive a merit-based scholarship provided by their institution that filled the other 50%, under the NCAA’s current policy, that player would have cost the team a full scholarship, leaving his coach with 10.7 scholarships left over for the rest of his roster. Now, if that same player receives a 50% merit scholarship in addition to a 50% athletics scholarship, that coach is left with 11.2 scholarships to divide amongst his remaining roster. 

Some have argued that the NCAA’s new policy could lend a competitive advantage to better-resourced universities with more merit/needs-based scholarship funding, and that’s a definite possibility. I believe the new rule could also allow coaches of equivalency sports to spread scholarships out more thinly, because it gives coaches much more flexibility in granting smaller partial scholarships. For example, if an equivalency athlete receives a 50% merit scholarship, a coach could potentially grant that athlete a 20% scholarship (for a total 70% scholarship) when s/he was originally planning on giving a 50% athletic scholarship (which would be a full ride when combined with the athlete’s merit scholarship) in order to free up more funding for the rest of the roster. At the end of the day, the athlete still benefits, but coaches aren’t obligated to award full rides under either the current or forthcoming policy. 

It is also worth noting that scholarship limits are exactly that: a limit. They are a ceiling, not a benchmark, meaning that these limits are the absolute maximum athletic aid a team can award, and athletic departments are not obligated to fully fund teams. This loophole could come into play in the aftermath of a canceled football season and a potential recession could also negatively impact the number of need/merit-based scholarships universities provide students. The NCAA’s new ruling is promising (if not long overdue), but it doesn’t necessarily mean that more equivalency athletes will receive more athletic funding. 

For more NCAA policy insights, follow Katie Lever on Twitter: @leverfever

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