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Publish date: Jun 23, 2011

DIII report raises financial aid concerns

By Gary Brown

A report marking the completion of the 2010-11 cycle and the sixth year of the Division III Financial Aid Reporting Program continues to reveal a number of institutions that are misapplying the division’s financial aid bylaws.

Ten more schools were found to have violated financial aid legislation in the most recent report, including five cases in which institutions considered athletics in awarding leadership grants or scholarships to newly enrolled student-athletes – either by rating participation or leadership in sports in aid formulas or explicitly listing athletics among other criteria for awarding a scholarship.

In the six years of the program, 168 schools have triggered a Level I review, with 126 of those leading to a Level II review in which the Division III Financial Aid Committee looks closely at an institution’s policies and procedures for awarding aid, as well as the impact of those factors on aid received by student-athletes.

Although 55 (about 13 percent) of Division III’s member institutions overall were found to have violated financial aid legislation through the first six years of the reporting program, about 38 percent of the division’s schools have received some level of review by the financial aid committee as a result of data submitted to the NCAA through the reporting program’s history.

The Financial Aid Reporting Program was adopted at the 2004 Convention and implemented a year later to detect instances where student-athletes collectively are receiving more aid than the general student body.

Jeff Ankrom, chair of the Division III Financial Aid Committee and faculty athletics representative at Wittenberg, noted that from the beginning, the reporting program has sought not only to hold member schools accountable for compliance with financial aid legislation but to help all Division III members better understand the impact of their policies and procedures on the objective of awarding proportionate aid to student-athletes.

But Ankrom said the committee is concerned that it continues to uncover cases annually, despite ongoing efforts to educate the membership about Division III Bylaw 15.4.1. The bylaw, among other requirements, states that “a member institution shall not consider athletics leadership, ability, participation or performance as a criterion in the formulation of the financial aid package.”

“We were thinking that by the time this committee had been around for a few years and had found some violations and had started to report out that these things would go away,” Ankrom said.

Among what appears to be confusing members is the distinction between “criteria” and “consideration,” both of which are used in the bylaw. Ankrom said schools typically understand that athletics participation can’t be listed as a specific criterion, but that some still don’t see the “consideration” of a prospect’s participation in athletics as a problem.

“Both instances result in violations, though” Ankrom said. “We don’t see the criterion ones very often, but the consideration ones are popping up frequently.”

Ankrom explained that a criterion would significantly limit access to certain grants to athletes – for example, something set aside for those who participated in athletics or something that a prospect must meet in order to be eligible for the award. A consideration, on the other hand, is where an award can be given to someone who has participated in various activities, among which athletics is one.

Neither is allowable in awarding aid to Division III student-athletes.

“The best examples here are participation awards for which athletics is included in a list of acceptable activities along with those such as language club, band or student government,” Ankrom said. “These are violations, as well.”

While some schools question why the committee takes such a hard stance on “consideration,” Ankrom cited the high potential for abuse in an unregulated environment.

“It would be easy to envision scenarios in which ‘considering’ athletics participation could become a de facto criterion that goes unsaid or unwritten,” he said. “That’s not what Division III has said it is about.”

In all, 62 institutions have been referred to enforcement over the six years of the reporting program. At the time of this most recent report, the 10 cases from 2010-11 are being processed by NCAA enforcement, and one major violations case from 2009-10 is being processed by the Division III Committee on Infractions.

Most cases referred to the NCAA enforcement staff stem from either:

  • Continuing uncertainty about Division III rules that explicitly prohibit awarding financial aid for any reason related to athletics, including considering whether a student-athlete played high school sports or served as a team captain; or
  • The use of institutional policies for awarding aid that have nothing specifically to do with athletics and are meant to benefit any student or help attract targeted groups to campus but result in student-athletes receiving a disproportionate amount of aid.

Violations typically have been treated through the program’s early years as secondary, resulting in penalties designed to educate the institution while ending the practice.

This spring, though, the Division III Management Council referred to the Committee on Infractions consideration of granting the enforcement staff the discretion to publicly disclose any violation regarding consideration of athletics leadership, ability, participation or performance within the student financial aid awarding process, even if such violation is deemed secondary. 

The Presidents Council backed that up with a directive to the Committee on Infractions that it use existing legislative authority, when appropriate, to publicly disclose secondary violations. In the past, those secondary violations haven’t been made public.

“There is good support for this type of reprimand,” Ankrom said. “I know that this sort of treatment would get the president’s attention at these schools.”

The NCAA enforcement staff may also start including allegations of an institution’s “failure to monitor” or a “lack of institutional control” in future major infractions cases that involve violations of Division III financial aid rules.

Ankrom acknowledged that while those are strict measures, they may be necessary to bolster a reporting program that in and of itself may not be enough of a deterrent.

The Financial Aid Committee has also talked about the idea of random audits as a way to make institutions more aware of financial aid policies, Ankrom said.

Committee member Sue Gaylor, the vice president for administration and planning at Lycoming, said it may be necessary to extend educational efforts to beyond just people in athletics.

“One of the challenges is an educational one – how best to get these reports and other information about financial aid to the right people at the schools,” she said. “Presidents are concerned about this but it may not be on their day-to-day radar. Coaches certainly are living this in terms of recruiting students, but they’ve got their minds on other things, as well. So it’s key for us to get this information in the right hands, particularly for schools that might be at risk for falling into one of these categories.”

She said schools should review the financial aid reports carefully.

“What I have found most useful is having a conversation with the appropriate people on campus,” she said. “I don’t sense a purposeful intent from most schools to not comply with the principle or to gain a competitive advantage, but our biggest goal is education. How do we achieve that?”

Ankrom said the committee will continue to be diligent in its review.

“But what happens,” he said, “is when people are close to a process like this, as is our committee, it becomes second nature to us and we sometimes forget that people outside the general membership don’t have their eye on this ball all the time like we do, which might be the simple explanation about why there hasn’t been more change.”