Sports scholarships are an expensive fix to a non-existent problem

Competing with U.S. for athletic scholarships isn’t a solution for Canadian university sport
Sept. 26/2012 - Waterloo University, Waterloo, Ontario. Waterloo Warrior Football. The boys hit the field and practice hard, after classes.
The Royal Candian Mint; Saeed Adyani/CP Images

Cheering for the home side is a natural and healthy thing to do. So it’s perfectly understandable that Pierre Lafontaine, incoming head of Canadian Interuniversity Sport, wants to boost the prospects for university sports teams in Canada by convincing more student athletes to study and train at home.

“We need to become the destination of choice for high-performance athletes in this country,” Lafontaine vowed at a press conference last week introducing him as the new CEO of Canada’s governing body for university athletics. As things stand right now, many (perhaps most) of Canada’s top-tier high school athletes forsake Canadian schools in favour of U.S. universities, which offer huge scholarship money, massive media exposure and all the associated prestige.

Lafontaine’s goal is commendable, but beyond a sales job heavy on the maple syrup and home cooking, there’s really no way to get around the financial disparities between playing in the U.S. and in Canada. While suggesting that Canadian university coaches need to become “great recruiters,” Lafontaine admits: “I do think the whole discussion of scholarships needs to be addressed.” It ought to be a short discussion.

Whatever loss Canada may suffer when our top young athletes head south is but a minor inconvenience compared to the enormous costs and overall damage an American-style college sports system could wreak on our schools. We’re much better off without those big scholarship dollars.

Canadian schools are currently forbidden from offering athletic scholarships that exceed tuition and student fees. The vast majority get much less than this. While tuition in most provinces is over $5,000 a year, the average Canadian sports scholarship is $1,060.

That’s mere pin money compared to what’s on offer in the U.S. “full-ride” scholarships that cover tuition and fees plus living expenses, transportation and other forms of “special assistance” can easily reach $50,000. The average amount of financial aid for a student athlete in an American public university, according to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, is $25,000.

The size and scope of their athletic scholarships guarantees U.S. schools the best young athletes in the world. This in turns makes university sports an attraction rivalling the professional leagues. U.S. college football alone earns more from its national television deals than the National Basketball Association, Major League Baseball or the National Hockey League.

All that money, however, comes at a tremendous cost. Not only does it pervert the attention of school administrators and fundraisers (“I want a university the football team can be proud of,” said a former president of the University of Oklahoma), it also plays havoc with ethics and law. With athletic success paramount to the reputation of so many American schools, there’s a great temptation to hide scandals or break rules. The list of improprieties arising from high-profile college sports runs the gamut from the cover-up of Penn State football coach Jerry Sandusky’s serial sexual molestations to a legion of tales of improper recruiting and under-the-table payments—everything from cash to sports cars and prostitutes. Sheltered from the enormous stakes at play in the U.S., Canadian college sport is much less prone to scandal.

Furthermore, newly compiled evidence suggests all the riches lavished on athletics is actually impoverishing the American school system. A study published last month by the American Institutes for Research examined the budgets of the 100 or so public universities participating in top-tier college football. Between 2005 and 2010, the report found fewer than one in four schools actually generated a profit from their athletic departments. In other words, at the vast majority of big-spending universities, sport is a money-losing proposition that requires subsidies from academic programs to survive. A Canadian arms race of scholarships and sports funding would inevitably play out the same way—draining funds from the core educational purposes of the university system.

As worthy as it may seem to keep our best student athletes at home, we’re actually better off with the system we have now. If the U.S. wants to pay exorbitant sums to train our best athletes, that’s their choice. And those students remain free to compete for Canada whenever they return. In fact, Lafontaine himself coached in Phoenix and Australia with great success before coming back to head Swimming Canada in 2005. We wish him further success at his new job, but trust he’ll leave the scholarship rules alone.

It’s that time of year when students anxiously wait to hear whether they have been accepted or rejected by universities. As the responses start rolling in, the juggling begins: money versus student life versus academics. The balancing act is fraught with indecision. For the eighth year in a row, the Maclean’s student issue can help, with the most recent rankings of universities in three size categories, as well as the latest surveys showing how current students feel about the choices they made. The focus is on the student, as we explore campus life—from an anonymous compliments movement that began at Queen’s University and spread to 130 schools, to the student obsession with Tim Hortons coffee.

The big surprise is how some post-secondary schools, most of which have career counselling centres, abdicate responsibility for helping students find a job—or even teaching them the mechanics of a job search. The new thinking is that career counselling should start in first year, students should learn basics such as cover-letter writing, and schools should clearly communicate what skills are in demand by the labour market. As the cost of a post-secondary school education rises and the minimum requirement for the most basic of jobs is an undergraduate degree or certificate, schools have to climb down from their ivory towers and help students succeed outside the quadrangle. Students have a right to know whether their degrees are worthy investments. A school’s reputation should depend on it.