Thursday, June 17, 2010

The Case For Scholarship Football

In the midst of discussions about conference realignment, the issue of scholarships and football at Georgetown, a Big East school that does not play football within its conference, has led those inside and outside the Georgetown community to ask what the role football scholarships should play in its future. This is the second of a three part series on the subject asking this question across a spectrum of possibilities: the case for a scholarship funding model.

For 60 years, the concept of scholarships in football has been so foreign to Georgetown that it was hardly worth discussing--only 30 or so alumni that ever earned a football scholarship are still in the alumni records. Prevailing wisdom told us that scholarship football was dropped over cost and, therefore, could never be conceived again. A corollary to this argument suggested that scholarship athletes were somehow "less" academic minded and thus unfit in the first place.

The first argument is false. So is the second.

If you think the cost of scholarship tuition killed Georgetown football in 1950, think again. The total cost of 81 scholarship tuition bills in 1950 totaled $36,450, or about the cost of one such tuition in 2010. Even adding room and board, books and travel, the cost of the student-athletes covered less than half the annual loss that season, one complicated by low gate receipts (three home games) and considerable travel (at Penn State, at Tulsa, at Boston College, at Miami, at Fordham, at Holy Cross).   For the most part, football was doing its part on and off the field, but renting an NFL stadium for crowds of 6,000 a game and traveling across the country for games were a dead end.

And for the better part of 45 years, football at Georgetown has existed with a central premise that football was for students and not for scholarships; in general, because Georgetown could not afford them in the first place, and in specific that it could always cobble a schedule of like-minded schools to maintain competitive parity. But within six months, that framework could change; and with it, both a challenge and an opportunity for Georgetown to revisit scholarship football will be at hand.

By December, Patriot League presidents are expected to vote on a measure allowing athletic scholarships in football. Led by Fordham, it is said to have the support of at least two other PL schools, who could convert need-based aid to grant aid with little difficulty. At least two other schools could favor it if the impact to its budgets by the covnersion could be worked out. For Georgetown (and to a lesser extent, Bucknell) the competitive impact would be devastating. In three games against scholarship opponents last season, GU was outscored a combined 73-16 at halftime.

Of course, the University would not be forced to play such competition, but times have changed. When GU rejoined NCAA play in 1970, there were over 110 schools in the Northeast playing nonscholarship football in what is now Division III. By 1995, in Division I-AA, there were 35 simialrly situated programs in the region, not counting lower division schools. If the Patriot opts to go to scholarship after the 2010 season, just nine non-schoalrship I-AA opponents would remain (Ivy League + Marist) , the balance having either gone scholarship in the Northeast Conference, or in the case of most of the former MAAC, dropped the sport entirely.

For a long time, scholarship sports at Georgetown were considered the province of basketball and track, and not much else. Owing to recent Big East requirements, limited scholarships have been raised in baseball, golf, lacrosse, soccer, and volleyball. In fact, only one NCAA sport at Georgetown is not allowed to sponsor any athletic least for now.

The case for scholarship football is an example of taking the next step--not for abandoning the institutional and financial principles that have guided the sport over these last two generations, but to enhance it, bringing with it a segment of student-athlete who is frankly disappearing on the campus: the middle class student. Unable to qualify for need-based aid, unable to pay tuition, this is the lost generation of would-be Hoyas ending up at places like Villanova, Stony Brook and Duquesne for the simple fact that these schools could offer aid for their future and Georgetown couldn't.

What if it could? What would it mean for Georgetown competitively and institutionally if it did?

"To be a competitive team in scholarship I-AA football alone, from 57 to 63 scholarships are needed and that is not an insignificant expense in a program such as Georgetown’s," wrote the previous column, and that is true--but it's not an either/or proposal, e.g., zero or 57. What would two, four or even six scholarships a year allow the coaching staff  to reach a prospect who could have a transformative effect on Hoya football if only he could afford to attend? Is the next Colt Brennan (a player who was said to have been interested in Georgetown while attending Worcester Academy in 2002) out there, if only GU could have offered him (or any comparable recruit) something less than $35,000 in loans, or more, for the privilege of attending?

Let’s again take a look at the five factors which can be used to evaluate a football funding model, adapted from a 2004 study at Rice University.

Philosophy of Competition: Absent an offer it could not refuse from the Big East Conference, this argument is not about an 85 scholarship Division I-A program playing at FedEx Field. Nor is it to realign with the likes of Delaware and Georgia State in the Colonial Athletic Association. If the Patriot League adopts a scholarship model, how do scholarships affect its philosophy of competition? Surprisngly, not that much,a t least to those who upgrade. With the players still being held to the admissions tandards set by the school and the league, the scenario is that some students can receive an education based on need, while others are receiving that same education based on the gifts of alumni and constituents. The element of competition, to field a team representative of the student body doesn't change, but is otherwise enhanced, because absent the middle class that carries a median income from $50,000-$150,000, athletics at Georgetown becomes an exercise of the very rich and/or the working poor. 

Rev. O'Donovan's vision of football to “utilize the game of football to create an environment and atmosphere among our students, faculty, and community on an autumn Saturday afternoon and bring to our campus a school spirit on a fall day that is desperately needed” by playing peer institutions that shared similar academic philosophies is maintained, if only that Georgetown could better compete with Patriot  teams (6-43 since 2001) and even Ivy teams (1-10 since 2003), which it seems less capable of doing under its present funding formula, and practically infeasible as these other programs pursue better recruits through either athletic scholarships or enhanced aid policies in the Ivy.

Peer Institutions: Each Patriot League school has a budget twice that of Georgetown, most of it in financial aid. For a school like Fordham, that number is almost three times in scope. If Georgetown can only offers $10,000 in aid to a recruit but Fordham can ofer a free ride, where does that kid go? Now, extend that to five other PL schools, and if Georgetown can't compete on the field now, what will it look like in a few years? And while Georgetown is among the median of Ivy schools by football budget, these schools have begun to implement a new facet of financial aid which figures to give it an insurmountable advantage over Georgetown on a strict need for need basis.

Athletic competition in any sport is best suited with comparable opponents and comparable missions. Forget the Big East for a moment--if Georgetown can't compete with Holy Cross or Penn, what's left? Duquesne and St. Francis, old rivals in the Division III days? Both are now building towards 40 scholarships. Wagner? Sacred Heart? Stony Brook? On their way to 40, too. The schools of the Pioneer League do not offer scholarships but range in distance from Marist (Poughkeepsie, NY) to San Diego. A schedule with the likes of Campbell (NC), Jacksonville (FL), and Valparaiso (IN) would do nothing to promote Hoya Football among an increasingly apathetic student and alumni population.

Should Georetown find the gifts to add the equivalent of 57 scholarships, opportuntiies for games with Big East foes are not out of the question. Colgate, for example, plays at Syracuse this year, and Fordham will play Connecticut in 2012,  but that's not the destination, a competitive experience is. Because the cost of education demands greater support for the student athlete, not choosing to act is a decision in and of itself.

Talent: What can Georgetown University offer a recruit? A great education-- assuming, of course, he can get in and find a way to pay for it. Talented recruits, especially those at the upper end academically, have a lot of choices and fewer are willing to take on tens of thousands of dollars in loans just to play for Georgetown when peers can (and will) offer essentially an loan-free education for attending its school. Opening up the door to more talented student-athletes can only help Georgetown's cause, mindful that it still has the ability to accept and reject prospects on academics--a scholarship is not a blank check.

While a generalization, I've used this analogy to explain the corner Georgetown is with recruiting. (The assistant coaches may disagree on degree, but it's one man's opinion.) If there are 1,000 prospects for GU out there, Georgetown is basically restricted to the top 100 by grades. Of those 100, 40 are below $50,000 income, 40 below $100,000, and 20 above it.  Of the 40 below $50,000, 30 will get scholarships elsewhere, with the Georgetown fighting for 10 with the rest of the Ivies and PL. Of the 40 in the middle, 30 will get scholarships elsewhere, but Georgetown can't offer any competitive aid, and will be in the running for 2 or 3. Of the 20 at the top, half will get aid through the Ivies (details below) and Georgetown is fighting for the remaining 10 with the six other PL schools.  So for 1,000 recruits, Georgetown is fighting for maybe 2% of the pool (albeit with an 0-11 record and the MSF), and that's assuming the 2% are difference makers and not second teamers.
A football scholarship plan could expands the prospect pool from 200-400% without  necessitating a change in academic standards. If you can't afford Georgetown, and Georgetown can't make a competitive offer, you're out from the start.

In the previous column, it was written that "a non-scholarship athlete understands priorities off the field take precedence to those on it, and so do the coaches." Well, so do scholarship athletes, maybe more so. The record of Georgetown scholarship athlete community stands on its own across many sports, and football should be no different.

Institutional & Constituent Support: The word "scholarship", to some, reads "open admission"--it's a reeflection that top teams in football and basketball show little attention to the SAT and grade range of the overall applicant pool and recruit on NCAA minimums, and Georgetown Basketball is widely perceived to to recruit well below the competitive nature of the admissions pool as a whole.

Few make this claim about lacrosse athletes being open admits, or soccer, or any of the schoalrship athletes. Each sport has a range of admissions opportunities (the so-called "stretch" versus "reach") and what works in basketball may not work in soccer, for instance. Scholarship football does not require open admission--it is a reflection of talent and financial need in an era where the middle class cannot afford to attend the University, and can be consistent with the admissions policies already practiced in sports like lacrosse and soccer, neither of whom are painted with the broad brush of uninformed opinion that basketball has been portrayed with over the years.

Yes, but who's going to pay for it?

Economics: If there are insuficient University resources to support scholarship football, fine. It's got to come from constituents. The Univesity's focus is rightly on need-based aid over the next five years, which could also be of gain for need-based recruits. Leveraging the Gridiron Club to raise money for full and half-scholarships (yes, a half grant can be powerful gift of and by itself) is an attractive option. To the $250,000 annual goal discussed in the previous column, that's five scholarships a year in recruiting, or two full grants and six half grants, however they are divided. That doesn't sound like a lot, but a coach that had these options for the student-athlete where Georgetown is a contender would be a tremendous selling tool for a a special student athlete who, quite frankly, can't consider affording Georgetown otherwise.

But let's revisit the change agent that is spurring this document: If Patriot League schools  offer scholarships, Georgetown is all but non-competitive. Further complicating this dilemma is the effort from Ivy League schools to essentially eliminate loans as part of a financial aid formula.

For 50 years, tuition at nationally competitive universities has increased with no end in sight. It cost somewhere around $2,500 a year to attend Georetown in 1960, about $4,500 in 1970 and just under $8,000 in 1980--while expensive, each was less than half the median income of the United States household. Since 1980, median household income has increased by 139%, but the cost of education has increased 513%, and with fewer federal aid options available, the cost of one year at an Ivy or PL school eclipses the household income for over half the nation.
In past years, Ivy and PL schools followed similar aid forumulas that made it theoretically comparable to accept an offer from Brown versus, say, Colgate. That has changed. Examples are noted at

  • Brown: Eliminated parent contribution in financial aid formula. Eliminated any loans for household incomes (HHI) under $100K, caps total indebtedness to $20,000 for any student with a HHI over $150,000.
  • Columbia: Eliminated parent contribution,repalced all loans with grants. No debt for HHI under $60,000.
  • Cornell: Eliminated parent contribution for HHI under $75,000. Caps loans at $3,500 per year for HHI under $120,000, caps loans at $7,500 above $120,000.
  • Dartmouth: No loans for HHI under $75,000.
  • Harvard: No parent contribution needed, no loans offered. Families with HHI over $120,000 expected to pay no more than 10% of their income for tuition.
  • Pennslvania: No loans.
  • Princeton: All loans converted to grants.
  • Yale: No parent contribution under $60,000, sliding scale of 1%-10% of income expected to pay for tuition.
"There are some families that will pay less for their kid to go an Ivy League school than they would if their kid went to a state school," said financial aid expert Mark Kantrowitz to

And they are not alone. In addition to schools like Duke, Stanford, North Carolina, Caltech, and more than two dozen no-loan programs among major colleges, Patriot League schools are getting into the fray: At Lafayette, no loans are offered to families with a HHI under $60,000, and cap loans above this at $2,500 a year. A similar program is found at Lehigh.

Where you won't find this--football or not, is Georgetown. The money's not there. And as Ivy and PL schools become more competitive aid-wise, scholarship or not, the means by which Georgetown can remain competitive for students and student-atheltes becomes ever less productive. Donor-initiated scholarships do not solve the issue, but it can help.

At the Georgetown web site, there is a brief interview with graduating lineman Jon Medina, who played three seasons before being sidelined by injury. "When I first began looking at Georgetown, all I saw was the sticker price,” he said. “The scholarships I received were essential to my attending Georgetown,” he says.

As the price of higher education takes more people out of the ability to pay, Georgetown need to consider all options to get the best students to look beyond that price tag and to the enduring value of a Georgetown education. "When enrollment is open to the best, we not only fulfill our mission, we not only fulfill the ambition of our founder, we not only serve those who gain otherwise inconceivable access to a first-rate education, but we enhance the experience of all who come to Georgetown," said GU President Jack DeGioia in his introduction to the 1789 Scholarship Imperative. For football's sake, engaging donor-supported scholarships must also be part of the discussion.