Every year, hundreds of collegiate athletes leave campus before graduation. Sometimes, as with other students, it’s because they simply didn’t complete the courses they needed for a degree before their four or five years was up. Other times, it’s because they leave school early to pursue a career in professional sports.
While in school, students on a full ride athletic scholarship typically face a pretty straight-forward scenario: They play sports, keep their nose out of trouble and in return they get reimbursed for housing, board and tuition.
But what happens when the same student leaves school, ending his athletic eligibility and then returns to campus years later in order to finish his degree? This, I found while reporting a story about Razorback football players struggling after their playing days, is a bit of a grey area.
From talking to former Razorbacks like C.J. McClain and Fred Talley, who are currently in the process of returning to school, it appears there is no set protocol on how much a former football player can expect to be reimbursed. Talley, for instance, came back after 11 years and got his tuition paid for, but NOT his room and board. Furthermore, he was told he has to maintain a C average in order to keep that reimbursement.
I confirmed with Arkansas that indeed similar scenarios are handled on a case by case basis. I wondered if this happened elsewhere, so questions were sent to each of the other SEC West schools to find out
- how much tuition/room & boards the school will play for if an athlete leaves early for the pros but later wants to finish his degree.
- if the schools have a minimum grade requirement for the former athletes to retain their tuition compensation.
I found out the University of Alabama, for instance, “pays tuition and fees, books, and other costs on a case-by-case basis for former student athletes who left the University in good standing and are eligible to return to UA,” according to Deborah Lane, Associate Vice President for University Relations. “Former student athletes who return must maintain a 2.0 GPA for all classes taken during the semesters they are enrolled.” Other schools echoed similar stances, with an Aggies employee adding Texas A&M scholarships typically demand a minimum 2.5-2.7 GPA.
The most detailed answer came from Brett Russell, Ole Miss’ assistant director of compliance. “Although NCAA rules permit former student-athletes* to return to their institution to finish their degree and receive financial aid, the decision to award financial aid is left up to the institution,” he wrote.
The institution is permitted to provide financial aid up to the institution’s published cost of room and board and can vary depending on the student’s residency/enrollment status [i.e., living on their own vs. living with parent(s)/legal guardian(s), full-time vs. part-time] .
Also, the NCAA does not have a minimum GPA requirement in order for a member institution to provide aid to a former student-athlete. In general, member institutions each have their own ‘degree completion’ program in which a student must apply for financial aid and be vetted through the appropriate departments before he/she will be awarded financial aid.
In fall, 2010 LSU launched such a degree completion program geared specifically toward its former athletes. “Project Graduation” director Kenneth Miles touts his program’s goal as “providing information and assistance to former student-athletes with the help of several university departments including the Athletics Administration, Admissions and Senior Colleges.”
“All of the related departments collaborate to provide former student-athletes with information regarding reapplying to the university, degree audits, health center requirements, financial aid assistance applications and contact information all while creating a positive environment consisting of full advisement and assistance services.” According to this press release, the program had helped 35 former student-athletes finish their degrees from inception through summer 2014. One of them was former star LSU quarterback Jordan Jefferson, for whom a long-time career in the NFL always seemed such a long shot. Not unlike the chances of his alma mater competing for a national title heading into the 2015 season, according to recent sportsbook online betting odds.
Many of the 10 former Razorbacks I interviewed believe a similar program is needed at the University of Arkansas.
*The NCAA’s super hardcore technical definition for “former student-athlete” is a “a student-athlete who has exhausted his or her five-year period of eligibility.” It can also mean a student-athlete “who is permanently ineligible to participate in intercollegiate competition due to a violation of NCAA amateurism and athletics eligibility regulations (e.g., signed an agreement with a professional organization, secured the services of an agent, exhausted eligibility due to delayed enrollment penalties) but is still within his or her five-year period of eligibility, who returns to the institution with no intent to participate in athletics shall be considered a former student-athlete for purposes of NCAA financial aid legislation.