Submitted by Rob Kniss, Michigan State University
With March Madness upon us, college basketball has taken center stage as fans across the country cheer on their favorite team hoping they will win the NCAA Men’s Basketball National Championship. Brackets are being filled out, even in financial aid offices (Gasp!), as people try to figure out which student-athletes will help their team to claim the ultimate prize. As the student-athletes who compete in these games have the national spotlight on them during this time, let’s take a closer look at how athletic aid and financial aid co-mingle, and how these student-athletes are affected.
As you can imagine, athletic aid and federal mix like oil and water, and the NCAA does a good job of legislating who can receive what. Federal aid (loans, Pell, SEOG, etc) is usually okay, but must adhere to the NCAA legislation depending on the scholarship the student-athlete receives. Institutional aid and outside scholarships are completely separate from this process and must be researched thoroughly to determine the awarding process, and if the award can be exempted through the NCAA or must be considered “countable” toward that student-athlete’s sports budget. There are many ways an institutional award or outside scholarship can be considered countable, but the general rule is if an institutional award doesn’t meet the NCAA merit guidelines, or an outside scholarship was awarded on athletic ability, they are countable. Of course the entire process is much more detailed than this, however for the purpose of this forum, this cursory explanation will suffice.
Athletic scholarships are awarded in two different manners: Head count sports and equivalency sports
Head count sport scholarships are restricted by a set number, and all student-athletes on scholarship for head count sports are on full scholarship. Therefore, if a sport offers ten scholarships, ten new athletes on that team can receive full scholarships each year. Since head count sport student-athletes receive full scholarships, which cover their full cost of attendance (COA), they are not eligible for any other form of federal aid with the exception of the Pell Grant. They may receive donor or institutional merit-based aid, provided the award can be exempted per NCAA guidelines and a matching reduction to their athletic scholarship is made so they are not exceeding the COA. Head count sports are typically the sports that generate revenue for the athletic departments at the institutions.
Equivalency sports also have a set number of scholarships. However, these teams are allowed to divide the scholarships between multiple athletes. For example, a team with ten scholarships on their budget could award six full scholarships, divide the seventh between two athletes giving them each 50%, and divide the last three among the rest of the roster. The coach could also not give any full scholarships and just split the money among all the rostered athletes but not exceed the ten scholarships. Equivalency student-athletes may receive a combination of athletic aid, federal aid, donor aid, and institutional aid to fill their budget up to the COA, provided that the donor and institutional aid is allowed through the NCAA exemption process. Some donor and institutional aid will count toward the team’s budget limits per the NCAA rules and must be permitted by the coach and intercollegiate athletics for the athlete to keep. The teams that use the equivalency method are usually nonrevenue sports for the institution.
The athletic aid/financial aid coordinator (some institutions have this position within the office of compliance, and some have it in the financial aid office) works in conjunction with the Intercollegiate Athletics Compliance Office for awarding and processing of scholarships for student-athletes. Student-athletes who are on a full athletic scholarship have their full tuition & fees, room & board, books & supplies, and personal & miscellaneous costs covered for the academic year. Student-athletes who are in equivalency sports are typically offered partial scholarships based on the percentage of scholarship they were offered and agreed to on the tender they signed with the institution. These costs are set by the Office of Financial Aid each year based on their cost of attendance procedures.
So there you have it, a brief but hopefully informative explanation on how athletic aid and financial aid works for Division I athletes. Now let’s hope that not all of your brackets have been busted!
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Rob S. Kniss is the Athletic Aid Coordinator for Michigan State University where he has worked for 11 years. He received his Bachelor’s and Master’s Degree from MSU and is currently finishing up his Ph.D at MSU as well. He will be defending his Doctoral Dissertation this May with his research focusing on college athletics, the NCAA, Pay for Play, Amateurism, and the legal battles the NCAA has faced.