Elmira College was sanctioned by the NCAA in late August 2021 for two major financial aid violations: failure to monitor and the awarding of merit based aid disproportionately to athletes versus regular students. This is a serious penalty for any institution, but the facts of the case should concern many higher education administrators because it could be happening on your campus.
Elmira College in New York, a Division III school, is formerly an all-women’s college that currently enrolls nearly 800 students. According to their most recent Title IX report, the school has 259 male athletes and 474 female athletes. Like so many small colleges, they are battling for every student they can get.
Let me explain the relevant issues.
In Division III athletics, financial aid can be awarded either based on your financial need or for merit, of which athletics has traditionally been excluded. The final combination total scholarship amount is based on meeting the student’s total financial need (as defined by the FAFSA), and according to NCAA rules, the aid must be similarly awarded between athletes and non-athletes. For two academic years, this did not happen at Elmira.
The NCAA “found that Elmira’s college athletes had 91% of their financial need met on average, while those who were not student-athletes had only 64% of their need met. Similarly, during the 2019-20 academic year, student-athletes had 83% of their financial need met, while others had only 61% of their need met. The committee found that this variance was clearly distinguishable.”
If this discrepancy had happened in Division I, can you imagine the uproar? (An announcement might look like this: “Today, the University of Texas was put on two years of probation because the NCAA determined that athletes received 91% of the merit-based aid, while the average student only received 64%.”) It is not likely that a decision of only two years of probation would be well received by the rest of Division I. I think a few members of the Power 5 conferences might object.
Elmira has placed much of the blame on a former vice-president of enrollment management’s strategy: students were awarded $1000 for visiting campus and/or completing the FAFSA form. In a time of a shrinking pool of available high school students in the Northeast portion of the United States, enrollment managers are fighting over the same pool of applicants.
“Elmira failed to provide comprehensive rules education to the financial aid office and coaching staff members,” the committee said in its decision. “Most notably, no one monitored the former vice president of enrollment management’s implementation of his enrollment strategies or the process of awarding financial aid to ensure compliance with financial aid legislation. These failures caused the violations to occur and go undetected for two academic years.” Today, the former vice-president has a “show-cause” order, meaning any NCAA school that chooses to hire him in the next two years would have to come before the association and demonstrate why he won’t do it again.
In an interview with Elmira’s President Charles Lindsay, we discussed how something like this could happen. How could “no one” have monitored his enrollment or financial aid strategies?
First, according to Lindsay, the former vice-president oversaw both enrollment and athletics. When your job is to bring students to campus and hopefully see them enroll, it can be very difficult to have to tell a coach “No” to a group of recruits; while at the same time, your job is to oversee the alignment of the athletics program with the campus mission.
Secondly, Lindsay told me, the school overly relied on this employee to know the ins and outs of the NCAA rules. While the former vice president assured everyone around him that he knew the regulations, it became obvious he did not.
Lindsay acknowledged that the “the key people on campus, including me, are all expected to go through an annual online training, and attestation.” Clearly, senior campus leaders such as enrollment officers, financial aid officers, housing and dining, and facilities employees must know the NCAA rules: in fact, the President is required to attest to that understanding every year or the institution will be suspended by the NCAA. But a fair question to ask is, where can they receive the training and who will monitor their understanding, especially as the rules evolve?
Lindsay also shared an astute observation-he believes that too much training at the Division III level occurs after an incident has occurred and the damage is done. He continued, “since we are found in violation, and we’re on two years’ probation, during those two years, our financial aid team, and a couple of others on campus are expected to go to some regional meetings, to learn about compliance and regulations, and I think that’s a good thing.” Better late than never?
Here’s the takeaway from this story. As senior campus leaders move up the ladder, do Presidents (and others) oversee their orientation to NCAA policies and procedures? For the former vice-president, the release noted, “During that period, he (the former VP) must attend NCAA Regional Rules Seminars, and any NCAA member school employing him must restrict his involvement with NCAA financial aid legislation by requiring direct oversight from the athletic department’s senior leadership on financial aid-related responsibilities.” Just wondering- whose job it is to enforce that directive?
As small private Division III schools in the Northeast and Mid-Atlantic regions are increasingly fighting over fewer and fewer recruits, Elmira’s situation is a cautionary tale. Unless more key senior leaders are effectively trained on the nuances of the NCAA rules on the front end, there are likely to be more cases of trying to entice students to enroll. Should it be a collective responsibility for all campus senior leaders to receive annual training? The resounding answer is yes.