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The Ivy "Arms Race" And What It Could Mean

Right now, the Ivy League is grappling with what it wants to be in the world of football. Three articles written this past week illustrate the issues they are facing: two detailing the "aid race" concerning new Ivy League admissions policies, and the other detailing one person's view on intercollegiate sports and the Ivy League's role in it.

As a Patriot League fan, I feel it's always important to see what the Ivies are doing since (for better or worse) the Patriot League seems to follow the lead of the Ivy League in terms of policies such as the Academic Index. With the Patriot League mulling a change to their AI to make it more similar to the Ivy League's flavor of AI calculations, it's worth seeing the debate happening amongst the Ivy League sports writers.

Start with these excellent articles by the Daily Pennsylvanian concerning "The Great Divide" and the Columbia Spectator on "Financial Aid Issues May Influence Ivy League":

Since its formation in 1954, the Ivy League has been perhaps the most stable conference in Division I. It has enjoyed a remarkable level of parity and is still the only D-I league whose membership has never changed.

But the distribution of financial aid money - and its effect on athletics - is threatening to upset that balance. The richest Ivy League schools are offering more and more money to students and are gaining an insurmountable advantage in recruiting, Penn Athletic Director Steve Bilsky said.

"What's inevitably going to happen is that there's going to be a divide in the league," he said. "Not based on philosophy, but on resources."

The articles are a must-read for how they talk about the games Ivy League schools have played over the years when it comes to computing aid for its students. With Harvard making a huge announcement this December that it would make a Crimson education free for folks who pass admissions with an income below $60,000, the rest of the Ivy League has been on the back foot when opening up their wallets. Princeton was already doing something similar, but Yale, Dartmouth and now Cornell have announced similar programs recently. Columbia has made all future loans for students with incomes less than $50,000 into grants.

The article also brings up another interesting point: that before 1991, the Ivy League (and MIT) colluded to keep their financial aid packages the same now matter how large their endowments are. With the the Justice department pressing lawsuits, the Ivies relented and stopped meeting to fix their financial aid packages, leaving it up to the individual schools. Seventeen years later, this action may be behind the perceived inequality amongst the Ivy League schools.

So what could this mean for the Patriot League? First, the Columbia Spectator article talks about recruiting in the Ivy League, but it could apply to the Patriot League as well:

“By name recognition, Yale, Harvard, and Princeton usually trump admission to other schools,” said Caesar Storlazzi, director of Student Financial Services at Yale.

While the Ivy League includes eight universities, these three are set apart. One reason may be their ability to spend with their respective endowments. Harvard’s endowment dwarfs that of any other university in the country. As of last July, its endowment was nearly $35 million. Yale and Princeton come in second and fourth respectively, both topping the $15 million mark.

With the exalted status of the three come benefits in the arena of recruiting.

“When we are looking at a player and find out she is looking at some of the Big Three, we find out early on if we are the first choice or one of the backups,” said Paul Nixon, the head coach of Columbia’s women’s basketball team. “If we are second, we move on.”

Nixon said that he rarely succeeds in courting players for whom Columbia is not a first choice. While Columbia has benefits that other schools do not, such as New York City and the only all-girls school that plays Division I athletics, it is still competing with Harvard and Yale.

“It is not a real secret that Harvard and Yale have the strongest name recognition among the Ivy League with Princeton up with them,” Nixon said.

In addition, Penn's AD speculates:

He suggested that some might focus on the benefits of granting continually more generous aid. And relative to peer conferences, the recruiting power of the Ivy League will likely grow, as the gap between an athletic scholarship and a need-based aid package decreases.

The Ivies also predict that the reforms will widen the financial-aid pool and bring more social diversity into the student body - and the athletic ranks.

But officials are unsure whether the process of cheapening an Ivy education will ever reach a stopping point.


Bilsky suggested a "radical" solution that would be a contradiction to the Ivy League's founding premise. He said that an athletic grants-in-aid model - a system of athletic scholarships - might end up being the best way to eliminate inequity. Bilsky did not endorse such a change, but said that it should be strongly considered.

Others do not see the need for action yet. [Deputy AD Robert] Ceplikas, of Dartmouth, said that a full recruiting cycle should pass before judging the effect of the new aid programs. He added that each school exploits its own edge in recruiting - location and academics, for example.

"But the reality is that this advantage dwarfs all other advantages," Bilsky said.


When asked about the effects of the new changes combined with the name recognition, Storlazzi responded, “I don’t know how you fight that.”

"A disparity in financial aid programs between different schools may lead to a lack of competitive balance within [the] Ivy League," Columbia athletic director Dianne Murphy said in a statement. "For our athletics conference to continue to operate within our guiding principles, we must be vigilant."

Bilsky doesn't endorse athletic scholarships - probably cognizant of the hornets' nest it might stir up. Not offering athletic scholarships has been Ivy League policy since 1954, and is probably the only part of the original Ivy League agreement that still stands unaltered since that time. That makes offering scholarships a very radical proposal.

The irony of such a situation would be that athletic scholarships would be a fair and equitable way to allow schools like Columbia be able to compete for football players that Harvard can get due to their generous aid policies. If Columbia offers a football scholarship or Harvard offers aid, isn't the end result the same - the kid gets his college education paid for, as long as he qualifies academically and continues to do well in the classroom? For sure the athletes themselves see the world that way - how much does my famiy have to pay? What's the size of the check?

What this could mean for the Patriot League is that Ivy League schools are offering more free education than ever before, and it only looks like it's going to become more prevalent, not less. And as a result, the recruiting power of the Ivy League will "grow" in comparison to "peer conferences". Not only is that very bad news for the Patriot League - there's evidence that their aid policy has already had an effect. You're not only seeing Harvard, Yale and Princeton these days win recruiting battles against the Patriot League, but against FBS schools like Duke, Rice and Stanford as well.

On the flip side, one effect of the arms race is that some folks are making impassioned pleas to do away with Ivy League sports altogether. One recent opinion piece in the Columbia Spectator demonstrates this view:

For a university made up of a small undergraduate population in a modern urban environment and that prides itself on thought-leadership, few policies could be as myopic, anachronistic, and ill-fitting than Columbia’s approach to recreation and athletics. Minor adjustments in degree will not suffice. A major change in kind is overdue.

In a globalizing world, the eight-member Ivy League conference is increasingly provincial and limiting to Columbia. Lower real costs of transportation have created a broader spectrum of universities that reject Big 10-style athletics, and embrace scholarship and amateurism. A composite Oxford-Cambridge tennis team has for decades played a team made up from Harvard, Princeton, and Yale. Soccer, basketball, fencing, swimming, volleyball, field hockey, rowing, sailing, tennis, and golf offer similar possibilities with university-affiliated clubs throughout the world. If we can send a football team to California and a basketball team to Honolulu, or Ithaca or Hanover, are London, Paris, Budapest, Milan, Cairo, or Tel Aviv beyond reach?

If the author would like to share with me the "lower real costs of transportation", especially in the era of $3 per gallon of gasoline, I'd like to know about them, never mind the amount of greenhouse gases that are generated by flying people all over the globe.

But wait, there's more anti-football sentiment as well:

Resistance to change is undoubtedly rooted in football. Football epitomizes just how wrong-headed our policies are. It is strategic folly to believe that after several decades of dedicated effort that undergraduate population doesn’t have a lot to do with our lack of success in football. Moreover, the intrinsic nature of football is such that beyond a certain tipping point the game is no longer safe to play. At times it has been painfully obvious that Columbia teams have been undersized, lacked depth, and not only lost games, but were physically beaten up, abused over an entire season, and suffered injuries with lifetime consequences. [But how does he explain 1996? - LFN] It is well past time that we recognize that we have a football team for guilty pleasures and wrong reasons.


What might an alternative future look like? Instead of fall homecoming focused on football, replace it with an invitational soccer tournament of men’s and women’s teams drawn from U.S. and European universities. Play the semifinals on Saturday at Kraft Field. Entertain the teams and let the participants commingle with our alumni under the tent.

Worried about alumni contributions? About attracting and recruiting students? These activities will excite new segments and draw in new sources of money and applicants. Extend the concept to basketball and fencing in the winter, track and crew in the spring. Fly a volleyball team to Milan and Rome, a fencing team to Budapest and Paris, a chess team to St. Petersburg and Moscow, a field hockey team to Lisbon and Madrid, a golf team to Dublin and St. Andrews.


Create a new “International Ivy Affiliation” of universities and university-sanctioned clubs for lifetime, low/non-contact sports. De-emphasize championships. Re-emphasize participation, and collegiality. Avoid “league structures.” Allow tie games again. Begin small. Emphasize fun and the fellowship of athletes. End every contest with a reception in the European sports club tradition. Restrict all technical development to things that lower the cost of the sport and advance affordable performance for all participants. Outlaw technical competitive advantages.

It's difficult to begin how wrong-headed this whole article is from start to finish, but I will give it a good Lehigh try. First of all, he definitely won't need Kraft field for an exhibition global multi-university soccer tournament, as it will probably only require the services of Harvard Stadium - and even then it won't be even close the same attendance numbers of Harvard/Yale. Much "collegiality" may be shared, but he can count on the fact that it will generate a massive "ho-hum" from the rest of America.

Second, you try can convince the Ivy League to give up its Ivy League championship and bid to the NCAA men's and women's basketball tournaments to "de-emphasize championships" -- but expect a lot of laughter. Furthermore, the Ivy League participates in more Olympic non-money sports than any other athletic conference - a de-emphasis on championships would surely cause the death of a multitude of sports played in the NCAA - mostly by athletes motivated more by fitness and collegiality, not seekers of big bucks in professional sports.

Third, many, many colleges have tried to replace football homecoming with other sports - including very good Division I basketball schools - with pretty much dismal results. Nothing, it seems, can still compete with football homecoming.

(And I guess he's never heard of a post-game handshake in all Ivy League sporting events? Of course he hasn't. And I guess he's never heard of the life-threatening injuries sustained by soccer players overseas, occasionally resulting in death? And please explain to me how the word "futurity" helps your op-ed - isn't the word "future" sufficient? And... OK, I'll stop now.)

The point of bringing up this article isn't to tear his arguments to ribbons: it's to say that if the Ivy League aid "arms race" gets out of hand, voices such as this anti-football one will start to ring louder. And the real threat that a Columbia, Cornell or Brown might say "enough" and leave the conference will start to look very real.

Ironically, the best possible solution to the problems of competitiveness amongst the members of the Ivy League is the one that in all probability won't ever be discussed - offereing athletic scholarships underpinned by an Academic Index, which might horrify those who want to see a de-emphasis on championships and a "return to ties". Yet what's the difference between that and offering free educations for almost everybody? You might even see Ivy teams compete for more NCAA championships, too - not just Harvard, Yale or Princeton.

It's here where the Patriot League has a real chance to be a leader amongst academic-minded schools, rather than a follower. Will they break from the pattern of following the Ivy League and finally start leading?


Anonymous said…
Great piece. We are with you in Raider land. Scholies, the sooner the better.
Anonymous said…
Howabout Brown, Columbia joining the PL?
Anonymous said…
"While the Ivy League includes eight universities, these three are set apart. One reason may be their ability to spend with their respective endowments. Harvard’s endowment dwarfs that of any other university in the country. As of last July, its endowment was nearly $35 million. Yale and Princeton come in second and fourth respectively, both topping the $15 million mark."

Surely you meant to say "billion"?

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