Supporting Student-Athletes

In a landmark move last January, the NCAA adopted a proposal granting “autonomy” for the “Power Five” athletics conferences (ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC) to develop rules of their own that they feel best impact Division I athletics. Schools in the other 27 Division I conferences may choose to adopt the autonomy rules or not. This controversial arrangement has led to much discussion among higher education leaders about the best ways to support student-athletes.

The most widely-discussed issue has been a decision by the “Power Five” conferences to provide student-athletes with financial aid that exceeds the formerly-defined elements of an athletics scholarship (tuition, room, board, books and fees) by including the entire cost of attendance as determined by each individual institution. In most cases, the additional aid comes to the student-athlete in the form of a cash stipend and has no direct relationship to the financial need of the recipient.

For many of the NCAA schools, including Elon, providing stipends to student-athletes above the current scholarship amount based solely on athletic ability raises basic questions of fairness and institutional values. Therefore, at Elon, our priorities for athletics will include a focus on providing a rich student-athlete experience that is consistent with the values of our university and prepares our student-athletes to go out into the world and make a difference.

Along with this column is a statement I co-signed with eight other college and university leaders explaining our viewpoint on how to best prepare student-athletes for meaningful lives, careers and citizenship. Instead of providing additional cash grants to individuals, we have chosen to make much more substantive and long-lasting investments in their future.

For example, Phoenix athletes participate in study abroad experiences with their teammates. For many of these students, it is their first opportunity to visit another country. We will work to ensure more Elon student-athletes also receive support for undergraduate research projects with faculty mentors, and they work with career counselors to find internships that will be the gateway to their careers. These, and many other transformative learning experiences, help ensure that academic success remains the top priority for every Elon student, including those who represent our community in athletic competition.

Leo M. Lambert

Another Presidential Perspective on College Athletics

The NCAA employs a public relations campaign that accurately captures the experience of most young men and women who participate in intercollegiate athletics. The campaign simply states:  “We are 480,000 student-athletes who are turning pro in something other than sports.” We applaud that message because it expresses the priority that our institutions place on the education and general well-being of students. As intercollegiate athletics continues to be the subject of tremendous media attention and public scrutiny, we believe it is important to emphasize the values and principles upon which our athletic programs are based.

First, our intercollegiate athletes are students who compete against other students under an amateur model. They learn important skills in leadership, teamwork, character development, resilience and problem-solving that are broadly applicable later in life. We have the same expectations of these students as we do of all of our students: i.e., we expect them to focus on their academic endeavors, to go to class, to graduate and to be prepared to be productive members of society. We provide them with tremendous educational benefits both in and outside the classroom that will prepare them for lives of meaning and contribution to society. We strive to be vigilant in finding the “right balance” between time requirements for athletics, academics, and other aspects of student life so that they can explore and enjoy all our institutions have to offer. And of course, many of them also receive full scholarships that cover tuition, fees, room, board and books.

Much of the recent public discourse regarding college athletics has focused attention on the very few elite athletes who may go on to have lucrative professional sports careers and on athletic revenues that flow to a relatively small number of institutions from media rights, ticket sales and sponsorships. The widely held public opinion that athletic programs at every institution are “profit centers” for the institution and that the athletes are being taken advantage of in the quest for revenues is simply not true. Most institutions invest millions of dollars annually beyond the monies generated by athletics in order to support their student-athletes and the benefits and values intercollegiate sports bring to the institution. The extremely limited view of those advocating a more professional model towards individual compensation ignores the experience of most of our student-athletes and the fundamental point that they are students—not employees and not biding their time at a professional training camp. While we are happy for that very small number of students who are able to pursue professional sports careers (which typically last only a few years), we must maintain our focus on the education that we provide that will prepare them for life after college and life after sport.

Given that focus, we believe that we must continue to treat these students as we do our other students. Across our campuses, many of our students have financial need, and we need to balance the support and spending on athletics with our primary academic and student priorities. Some institutions have recently opted to offer “cost of attendance” payments that provide additional economic benefits for miscellaneous expenses to some or all student-athletes (particularly in high-profile sports that receive significant media attention). Every institution must make choices that reflect its values, priorities and circumstances. Our institutions have chosen not to offer additional “cost of attendance” payments to student-athletes at this time.

We care deeply about our student-athletes, but we also care deeply about all of our students and want to treat all students equitably at a time when overall aid is limited, costs are increasing and public financial support for higher education is diminishing.

As educational leaders, we feel strongly that our budgets must reflect our missions and the needs of all of our students. Many student-athletes have significant financial need, but so do many of their fellow students. Traditionally, athletic scholarships are “need blind,” meaning they are awarded based on the individual’s athletic ability, with little (if any) consideration of the student’s financial need. In stark contrast to the families of most students, in many instances, the athlete’s family is not required to fill out financial aid forms (FAFSA) for governmental or institutional financial aid. In sheer number and amount, athletics scholarships are already often the largest and best non-loan student financial aid packages on campus. In addition to athletics scholarships, student-athletes who do choose to demonstrate financial need can receive an unrestricted federal Pell Grant with a maximum value of $5,775 for the 2015-16 year. Similar need-based scholarship programs are also available through state and institutional funds. Many student-athletes graduate without any educational debt.

Spending even more money on payments for certain high-profile sports could lead to pressures to eliminate other varsity sports on campus, which would limit the athletic experiences available to many of our students or cause an increase in tuition and fees for all students. It is our responsibility to ensure that the disproportionate media and financial attention on certain high-profile sports does not undermine opportunities for large numbers of students or get in the way of larger institutional interests. Accordingly, we are committed to administering our institution’s athletic programs in ways that are consistent with our mission, culture and values.

Student-athletes are a vital and integral part of our student bodies. They make us proud in their competitive venues, on campus, in the classroom and in the community. Their efforts can engender a strong sense of school spirit and influence the behaviors of others.

Like other students, and in ways consistent with institutional resources, student-athletes will receive the financial support needed to thrive at our colleges and universities. We will also continue to look for ways to enhance their health, safety and well-being. We will foster their development with comprehensive academic advising and career counseling. We will support their participation in activities such as study abroad, internships and undergraduate research—where athletes have often been underrepresented. These are the ways in which we can and should support all of our students, and that reflect and reinforce our educational mission.


Jonathan R. Alger
President, James Madison University

Mark Huddleston
President, University of New Hampshire

Leo M. Lambert
President, Elon University

General J.H. Binford Peay III, U.S. Army (Retired)
Superintendent, Virginia Military Institute

Stuart Rabinowitz
President, Hofstra University

W. Taylor Reveley III
President, College of William & Mary

Nayef H. Samhat
President, Wofford College

E. Thomas Sullivan
President, University of Vermont

Nancy M. Targett
Acting President, University of Delaware

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