Stretching Scholarship Dollars Key To College Success
In late March, Stanford announced it was raising an important financial aid threshold. Previously, any family with a yearly household income of $100,000 or less could expect to contribute nothing to a student's tuition payments. This year, that number became $125,000, which is more than twice the median U.S. household income but right in line with the median figure of Stanford's student body.
The motivation for the move was primarily academic: Removing money as an obstacle in getting the smartest, most talented high school students to Palo Alto.
The implications go further than that, though, to the sphere of athletics. Not to football and basketball, most schools' most popular sports and primary moneymakers. A scholarship in those sports has essentially the same value anywhere, and schools are can cover each position three to four times over.
Baseball, however, is different. It is limited to 11.7 scholarships for a 35-man roster, and those are doled out not in terms of yes and no, but in percentages and fractions.
With the change in criteria for full tuition coverage, then, Stanford gained another advantage, apart from its prestigious academics, numerous major league alums and place in one of the nation's top college baseball conferences. Its built-in scholarship for some recruited athletes got a little bigger. The playing field became a little less level.
But that added inequality, in the scope of the sport, is like adding a pebble to Mount Everest to make it a bit steeper. In college baseball, managing the financial side of recruiting and building a team is as big a task as assembling a bullpen, and inequalities in the system are as common as dirt on the mound.
The Myth Of 11.7
The NCAA's 11.7 limit on baseball scholarships is best understood as a cap, rather than a universally set amount. As the actual amount of aid baseball coaches distribute among their student athletes, its existence is far from universal.
That such an amount of scholarships is legislated does not mean schools have to fund them. A considerable portion of Division I baseball programs have fewer than 11.7 scholarships; with the actual amount depending on how each university prioritizes baseball.
Such a difference, combined with the financial gulf between "Power Five" conferences and mid-majors and that between northern and southern schools in relation to the season's February start date, puts an almost incomprehensible gap between schools on the same footing in terms of classification.
"The differences between LSU and Presbyterian College are about as much as the Yankees to Baylor," American Baseball Coaches Association Craig Keilitz executive director said.
Financial inequalities don't just exist between the upper and lower echelons of the sport. They're endemic even among the heaviest of hitters, in the center of college baseball: The Southeastern Conference.
Those inequalities stem largely from "lottery scholarships" widespread across the south. Whether higher education funding actually comes from lottery revenues depends on the state--Georgia's HOPE Program and South Carolina's LIFE Scholarship are lottery-funded, but Louisiana's TOPS is not--but the programs tend to be lumped together under that moniker. And they do share a number of characteristics: publicly funded, available primarily to residents of each state and with academic standards low enough to make them accessible to a large portion of students. They also apply to both public and private universities, despite being state programs.
The size of scholarships, however, varies a good deal between the programs. For HOPE, Georgia residents must achieve a 3.0 GPA from an eligible high school and, starting in 2015, meet certain "rigor requirements" of taking courses deemed sufficient, including advanced placement courses, foreign languages and advanced math and sciences classes.
Once they do that, students receive an amount of money per credit hour that varies by school: Georgia Tech and Georgia, the state's two heaviest hitters on the college baseball scene, are at the top of the scale, with $226 awarded per credit hour for the fiscal year of 2015. That adds up to $3,390 for a 15-hour semester--in-state tuition at Georgia is estimated to be $10,386, so a full HOPE scholarship could cover more than half of a student-athlete's tuition and fees for one year.
TOPS has four levels, with three--Opportunity, Performance and Honors--primarily applying to students at four-year universities. Those three levels are differentiated by ACT scores of 20, 23 and 27, respectively. They all do, however, cover full tuition, plus a stipend at the top two levels. The Louisiana Office of Student Financial Assistance places the value of an Opportunity award for the past year at LSU at $6,464, while the university estimated total in-state tuition and fees for that year to be $8,758.
Other programs don't provide as big a scholarship, but are substantial, like the LIFE Scholarship. Some, like Florida's Bright Futures program, have higher standards and include requirements like service hours as part of the criteria. For states like Kentucky, with its KEES program, overall awards are much smaller compared to other states.
But the inequality between the programs pales in comparison to the disadvantages faced by teams in Mississippi and Alabama, two states without state lotteries and consequently without higher education scholarship programs. Discontent and dissatisfaction rise in the coaching ranks in turn: Putting together a team in accordance with NCAA rules and regulations can be like assembling a puzzle, and states with lottery scholarships have bigger pieces.
"I don't know if people get that concept, that there's so much funny money . . . different money in different places, where that's what it all comes down to," Mississippi head coach Mike Bianco said. "And we, in Mississippi and Alabama, probably have less than our competitors."
How big an advantage having access to lottery scholarships gives a program depends on who you ask. Former Georgia head coach David Perno said he saw the size of the award shrink during his 2002-13 tenure and had to deal with the difficulty of carrying the award over from year to year, which student-athletes must earn a 3.0 GPA on a full course load to do. A 2011 Atlanta Journal-Constitution report said only three out of 10 students held on to the scholarship for their college career.
"You want to talk about a problem," Perno said. "You get a bunch of guys, you give them 25 percent and they come in with the HOPE. Well, what happens the next year when they lose it? So there's some hard meetings there."
Mainieri estimated the total benefit TOPS adds roughly two full scholarships to his team, but also made a point to mention the impossibility of building and maintaining a program at LSU's current caliber with solely Louisiana talent. He focuses energy on getting certain players to school on 25 percent scholarships or no scholarships at all, then uses the extra money to go after premier national talent. Former LSU outfielder Raph Rhymes, whose .431 batting average led the nation in 2012, was on 25 percent but voluntarily gave up that scholarship at the end of that season.
"I thought that was the most unselfish, most team-oriented thing I'd ever heard," Mainieri said. "But that doesn't happen very often, either."
What the lottery money basically does is throw an extra financial wrinkle into the recruiting process for coaches and players. It winds up further changing what each dollar from each school means to each individual, adding yet another complication to the wildly varied value of the sport's primary financial aid resource: the scholarship offer.
The Inequivalent Equivalency
Because a full scholarship is a rare species in baseball, the value of whatever a team offers a player is tightly tied to the cost of attending a certain school. This creates more financial imbalance in the sport, particularly between public and private schools.
Former Baylor head coach Steve Smith, who was dismissed after 21 years following a 23-32 season in 2015, saw this financial crunch when the university looked to expand its footprint while raising tuition to compensate for increased spending.
"Ten years ago, if I awarded you 75 percent (of a scholarship) you owed about $4,000," Smith said. "Today, if I give you 75 percent, you owe about $15,000. So my situation, scholarship-wise, has been blown apart by Baylor's increase in cost."
Smith's main gripe was not with the school, but rather with the equivalency model baseball is held to. Baylor does have the aid of academic scholarships from the school, but the ceiling of those don't make a huge dent in the in the school's estimated overall cost of almost $50,000 per year. Furthermore, students must achieve either a 105 ACT sum score, a 1,200 SAT score, a 3.5 GPA, or place in the top 10 percent of their graduating class to be able to stack any type of academic aid on top of what they receive as a scholarship. That forces coaches like Smith to discriminate by academic performance as well as playing ability in their recruiting efforts.
"It's helping us survive, but it's not making any difference," Smith said of the academic aid.
Former Tulane head coach Rick Jones identified three keys he looked for while recruiting: That an athlete could play, pass and pay--with the last being almost as important as the first.
"In our sport, a young man doesn't necessarily always go where he wants to go," Jones said. "He goes to where he can afford to go."
Such struggles are common at private schools, but a number use need-based aid as resource that is both a sign of pride and, for opposing coaches, a source of consternation.
According to U.S. News & World Report, as of September 2014, 13 Division I institutions, minus Ivy League members, "claimed to meet 100 percent of demonstrated financial need for full-time, degree-seeking undergraduates in fall 2013." Eleven of those universities are private, and three of them--Vanderbilt, Stanford and Rice--are regular contenders in the college baseball landscape. The two public universities on the list, Virginia and North Carolina, share the status of being giants in the sport.
"If a student athlete receives need-based assistance, he/she normally will not also receive athletics assistance," Vanderbilt spokeswoman Princine Lewis said in an emailed statement. "Student athletes must go through the same financial aid application process and review as any other student."
Furthermore, NCAA bylaws specify the need to use "methodologies that conform to federal, state and written institutional guidelines" in giving out need-based aid.
The advantage that money provides is countered by the limitations imposed on coaches of those programs due to their rigorous academic environments. Coaches at Vanderbilt, for example, must keep in mind whether a recruit will be able to fit in academically at the school. That entails walking away from certain players that they might like from a purely baseball standpoint.
Former Commodores assistant coach Derek Johnson, now the Chicago Cubs' minor league pitching coordinator, said he looked for an ACT score in the 22-23 range when evaluating players. That's far lower than the standards for a non-athlete Vanderbilt student, but a good deal higher than the standards on the NCAA Eligibility Center's sliding scale--where a 3.0 high school GPA would require a 52 sum score on the ACT, or an average of 17.3 per section.
Vanderbilt's APR--the NCAA's primary measure of a program's athletic performance, based on academic eligibility and graduation rate--certainly passes muster. The Commodores have been either at the top or within single digits of the top spot in the measure in the SEC since 2004-05, when the score was first tabulated, and tallied a perfect 1,000 in 2008-09.
Rice, Stanford and Virginia have also been strong performers in APR. Each scored 980 or higher for 2012-13, with the Cardinal achieving a perfect 1,000. North Carolina is the odd school out, with a 946 for that academic year, which placed the Tar Heels last in the ACC.
While need-based aid provides some schools a boost, the biggest factors don't vary much from school to school: long-tenured coaches with universal renown, utilization of top home-state talent and a solid academic and on-campus environment.
"For 50 years, everyone kicked Vanderbilt's tail in the league and now, all of a sudden, it's kind of turned the opposite direction, and I think people are trying to figure out why," Johnson said. "And I know why. I've been there. I know exactly why, and it has nothing to do with anything illegal or anything wrong that anyone's doing."
Money isn't everything in college baseball, but it is a huge thing. And further complicating matters are a set of rules that went into effect late last past decade that have infuriated coaches and complicated teams' financial situations even further.
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Rules To Live By
The NCAA began using APR to track athletic programs' academic performance during the 2004-05 school year, and the governance structure quickly decided that baseball's performance as a sport wasn't up to snuff. The instances of some coaches bringing in and cutting a large number of players in the fall would kill a particular program and bring the sports' score down as a whole.
With increasing APR, leveling the playing field and maintaining overall student welfare in mind, three new rules were implemented in 2008, first taking effect in the 2009 season. Schools were required to give at least a 25 percent scholarship to any player on athletic aid; a team could only have 27 players on athletic aid (have 27 "counters," in bylaw terminology); and rosters were capped at 35 players.
The rules did succeed in accomplishing those first two goals. Baseball's APR skyrocketed 19.1 points from 2006-07 to 2007-08, though much of that had to do with an adjustment in how athlete retention was judged. The sport's score had been on a steady rise since then, coming in at 972.0 in 2012-13.
Still, the coaching community is generally against the rules in their current state. In the ABCA's most recent fall survey of Division I coaches, which had an 89.3 response rate, 65.4 percent of coaches voted to eliminate the 25 percent minimum rule, and 59 percent voted to eliminate the 27-man roster maximum rule. (However, 56.8 percent voted to keep the current roster limit.)
The main gripe of coaches against the rules is that they create just as many complications as they solve problems, and give baseball the status of being more heavily legislated than any other equivalency sport. The restrictions created by those rules enhance coaches' already challenging task of distributing 11.7 (or so) scholarships among a team more than twice that size, with half of that money going to pitchers, who only appear once or twice a week.
A general principle in college baseball is that if a player is making an impact, he's receiving some scholarship aid. The 25 percent and 27-man rules have limited coaches in their ability to give out aid, and with it has reduced teams' overall depth. Coaches have less margin for error in recruiting and evaluation, and injuries are significantly more harmful to the group as a whole.
Georgia's Perno brings up the story of current Atlanta Braves lefthander Alex Wood, who was the team's star recruit but had Tommy John surgery out of high school, taking him out of action early in his college career. But Perno already had his 27 counters set, and all he could do was pick up an extra walk-on.
"We were just going to have to bite the bullet for a year and I was trying to replace him, and lo and behold Chance Veazey gets paralyzed, another freshman who was going to start for us and play an impact role, so there you are," Perno said. "Before the season even starts, we're down to 25 guys on aid."
That coaches adjust to the rules doesn't mean they're any less dissatisfied with them. The 25 percent and 27-man rules often combine in ways that prevents the latter from ever being reached. The math simply doesn't work out, and a coach can be left with 15 percent of a scholarship with nowhere to put it.
"At the end of the day, I'd be shocked to see how many people are really playing with 27 scholarship players," Louisville head coach Dan McDonnell said.
"If the family or kid didn't like it, the book scholarship that they were getting, then go somewhere else!" Virginia head coach Brian O'Connor said. "It's not like we had this magic potion that we were sprinkling over kids and making them come for book scholarships. The kid and the family make that choice. If it wasn't enough for them, then they wouldn't have come."
Coaches are less than convinced that the rules were needed to maintain or raise APR, either. Bianco thinks coaches would have found a way to get their scores up with the built-in penalties as the only impetus needed. O'Connor is skeptical that the sport's APR was even at a level where action was needed. And even if the new rules don't apply as much to O'Connor--his rosters have generally topped out in the low 30s--he expressed concern for how the rules might affect the sport as a whole.
"I'm just a big believer in (that) the more opportunities (we can) provide kids, the better our sport will be," he said.
The most direct way to eliminate dissatisfaction is through action. The ABCA's survey shows that most coaches would be in favor of taking it. But is it feasible, or even possible, to do so?
Courses Of Inaction
Keilitz is a former athletic director, having served in the capacity at High Point from 2008-14, so he knows as well as anyone the difficulties of negotiating the NCAA bureaucracy. And unfortunately for baseball coaches with hopes of quick change, that structure is more byzantine, busy and uncertain than ever.
The main issue standing in the way is the changes having to do with the Power Five conferences gaining more autonomy and more weight in Division I-wide votes. With this autonomy comes the necessity to essentially build new governance structures, with committees and deadlines and authority figures.
"It's like reinventing government," Keilitz said.
As Keilitz puts it, the NCAA is in a "holding pattern" as far as hearing new proposals. And even when they do, there's an almost two-year gap in submitting a proposal and putting it into effect.
No matter how dire the issues at play, change is not going to come quickly, at least not on a non-geologic time scale.
"But there needs to start being dialogue," Bianco said.
Consider this the mound visit. The pitching change is still a long way off.