17th July 2020

Lauren Rice takes on the US student athlete financial trap

The United Kingdom and the United States are among the five most expensive places to attend University in the world. For many young people on both sides of the pond, going to University is considered a rite of passage – part of growing up. But the cost of attending University has been outpacing income growth in both the UK and the US since the year 2000, compounded by the financial crisis of 2007/8 and austerity measures implemented in an attempt to lessen its impact.

The UK’s ‘Student Grant’, who stays in bed until the afternoon and spends taxpayer money on beer, is now largely a historic throwback to the 1990s and before. While some US students still spent hours and dollars planning Spring Break getaways to Mexico and other exotic locations, they are the exception rather than the normal. 

The majority of today’s students financially struggle. In 2018, the average UK University student graduated with debts of £36,000, according to government figures. In the US, a project on how students deal with financial issues initiated by the Society for Advanced Business Editing and Writing (SABEW) revealed that many US students are facing serious financial hardships, as reported by CNBC last year. In some cases, this can involve stark choices such as whether to attend class or eat.

An untold story is that many of these financial issues can be compounded by the complicated US athletic scholarship system. Lauren Rice, who has been left with crippling debt after family issues led her to change University, resulting in the loss of her athletic scholarship, knows this only too well. And she is pushing for things to change.

A complicated scholarship system

For a UK athlete, Loughborough University is perhaps considered Mecca both for facilities and courses. In the US, the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor is considered one of the top institutions for sports-related courses, arguably matched by UCLA  and others in terms of sporting facilities.

However, a major difference between University sport in the UK and the US is the athletic scholarship system. In the UK, athletes can get limited support through the Talented Athlete Scholarship Scheme (TASS), which has invested £400 million (US$487.5 million) in supporting over 6,000 athletes since 2004. 

However ‘College Sport’, to use the vernacular, operates very differently in the US to University sport in the rest of the world. Attendances at College football games regularly top 100,000 and on 20 February 2019, ticket prices for the Duke vs. North Carolina NCAA basketball game are understood to have topped US$4,000 – more than for the National Football League’s (NFL) Super Bowl.

In short, the popularity of College Sport makes the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) one of the richest sporting organisations in the world. Its 2018/19 accounts revealed revenue of US$1.12 billion, outstripping expenses of $1 billion. Every year, it distributes $3.5 billion in athletic scholarships to over 180,000 student athletes each year – an average of $19,444 per student, if scholarships were distributed evenly.

But they are not. There are three College Sport Divisions. The world of NCAA scholarships is complicated, but the basics are that Division One institutions are able to offer athletically-gifted students large scholarships to study at their University. Division Two institutions offer smaller scholarships, and Division Three institutions are not able to offer scholarships.

It is understood that the types of athletics scholarships also vary between institutions. Ivy League institutions – Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale – do not offer athletics scholarships. A full scholarship – as is common in Division One – covers tuition fees, accommodation and course-related books. 

‘Many student-athletes also benefit from academic scholarships, NCAA financial aid programs such as the NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund and need-based aid such as Federal Pell Grants’, reads NCAA advice to prospective students. ‘Division I schools may provide student-athletes with multiyear scholarships. Additionally, Division I schools may pay for student-athletes to finish their bachelor’s or master’s degrees after they finish playing NCAA sports.’

However, the scholarship money offered to student athletes can vary considerably, as the table on the right illustrates. For example, ScholarshipStats reports that the average athletics scholarship at the University of Miami is judged to be $47,347 – more than double the average. Division One institutions are understood to account for two thirds of every athletic sponsorship dollar awarded. 

Jeffrey Dorfman, a Professor of Economics at the University of Georgia, argued that the true value of a Division One NCAA scholarship – including all the benefits on offer to student athletes – topped $125,000 per year. And that was in 2013 – seven years ago.

The cost of attending US Universities also varies considerably. During the 2017/18 academic year, the cost of attending a ‘flagship’ University ranged from $5,217 to $47,476, reports ValuePenguin. So although athletics scholarships help considerably with the cost of attending a US University, they do not usually cover a student’s total expenses.

Running a sports programme costs money. The table on the right illustrates that even in Division One institutions, which generate 97% of the NCAA’s revenues, running a sports programme is not profitable. ‘Expenses ranged from approximately $4.2 [million] to $49.4 million and revenues ranged from $3.6 [million] to $49.4 million’, reads NCAA research into Division One finances (PDF below). It also reveals that athletics expenses are growing by 2% more than educational expenses in Division One.

A similar story plays out in Division Two, where no institution reported revenue that exceeded expenses (PDF below). The same was true for Division Three.

What the above means is that in order to offer attractive scholarships in order to attract the best athletes, most NCAA Universities have to subsidise their athletics programmes by using revenue from other sources. ‘Schools account for those deficits by subsidizing athletics via student activity fees and direct support from the university’, to use the NCAA’s words.

An untold and often unexpected story is what happens to student athletes who lose scholarship support. Through sharing her experience, Lauren Rice hopes to change that.

Lauren’s story

Lauren Rice’s issues began when she transferred from the University of San Diego to Augsburg University. In the face of considerable emotional and financial hardship, Rice graduated with first class honours and rewrote the athletics records books at Augsburg. The reason for her perseverance was to secure employment that could support her and her mother. But things didn’t turn out the way she planned.

“I was a Division One athlete before I went to Augsburg, which is Division Three – so they’re not supposed to give scholarships to athletes”, she explains. “I needed to come home to support my family, and athletics wasn’t as high a priority. I probably wouldn’t have faced quite as big a financial crisis if I hadn’t done that.”

The divorce of her parents had thrown her mother into poverty and homelessness. As explained on her blog, Rice says that she was given a stark choice. Sever all contact with her mother and live with her father, or live with her mother. She chose the latter option, which unfortunately also meant facing the poverty her mother faced.

“While I was in College, I was still on campus, but money was so tight that I was going hungry”, she says. “Anything else – such as buying clothes – was off the table. I was not taking care of myself, because I couldn’t. It is a common problem in the US. There is a huge issue with the whole system. Even as a Division One athlete you could face the same issue because the cost of education is so high, and you aren’t able to support yourself.

“It’s not uncommon. They trap people with things that they want, and they get careless with what happens to you. If you get injured, they’ll just take somebody else. That can happen to you no matter what division you are in.”

Rice was a successful athlete. In 2014, she broke the Augsburg 10k record by over two minutes and was named as the Augsburg Women’s Athlete of the Year (see video below).

“I was an All American Athlete [a honorary term for the best college athletes in particular sports] and I wrote a lot of the school records for them”, explains Rice. “It is incredible that I could go hungry and still do that. It was determination in spite of everything else that was going on, not because they were supporting me. 

“I was being charged a lot and couldn’t afford to take care of myself well. I was starving and struggling, but I figured I could work through this for a couple of years then when I graduate, I would be able to support myself.”

Unfortunately, that didn’t happen and after graduation, Rice’s situation became worse. “While I was still in school, I couldn’t afford to get the supplies that I needed, so the University offered me a loan”, she says. “I accepted it without fully understanding how it worked. When I graduated, that loan couldn’t be consolidated into my other student loans. So collections began when I couldn’t get a job, soon after graduating. 

“I am super determined and driven. After I graduated I tried every avenue. I used all the resources at the University – the Employment Office, everything I could find. I was at job fairs, I was searching online, I was going to interviews whenever I could. Augsburg offered nothing to me in terms of support. The best answer they could give me is that you need another degree – a Masters degree – or you could go overseas and teach, as part of a Fulbright scholarship. 

“It was that or continue living in poverty. My understanding was that by getting a degree, I would be able to live a life where I could support myself and clear my own debt. I ended up homeless after graduating, because I couldn’t find suitable employment. I was sleeping in my car, or some nights at campgrounds.

“I think that is why people haven’t heard about this situation before is because it’s embarrassing to admit that you tried your best yet failed, over and over again. I am lucky in that I can separate myself a little bit from what happened.”

Negative experience

Because of her experience, Rice’s experience of University is unfortunately not positive. It has left her deep in debt and unable to secure employment, which is why she has reinvented herself as a writer and motivational speaker. She doesn’t want other athletes to be pulled into a system that drags them into debt without giving them the means to repay it.

“I am looking at different ways of preventing other students from getting pulled into the same problem”, she explains “Me being ‘All American’ and setting new records is effectively a way to recruit new athletes and students. They can say hey, look at this athlete who was here and did so well here, when the reality is that I was struggling so much. 

“I have talked to a lawyer about what avenues I could take towards making a change, and if there is anything I can do personally”, she says. “I’ve reached out to legislators and representatives. They haven’t been very responsive and have given a blanket answer. I spoke with the Assistant Athletic Director at Augsburg recently, and she said that they are working on making changes, however they didn’t follow through on my requests.”

Rice has published two Open Letters to Augsburg University on her blog. The first, written in December last year, asked Augsburg to stop promising students financial security through employment whilst leading them into debt.

‘Look at your school track and field record board’, she writes. ‘I rewrote it. My name is on the mile through the 10k. I earned the Elite 89 award, which is granted to the athlete with the highest GPA [Grade Point Average] at the NCAA tournament. I earned All-American honors multiple times and received your female athlete of the year award. I graduated Summa Cum Laude. I earned Departmental Honors in Communication Studies. 

‘While I was earning Augsburg positive attention through academic and athletic achievements, I was going hungry. I didn’t know whether I would be able to finish my degree, because there was no funding for my books and other necessities. Not only was I training and competing, but I was working a work-study job for near-minimum wage. After I graduated, I could not find a job no matter what I tried. I asked you for help with job connections or internships, but you offered none. I finally entered a retail position in desperation. Pure hunger and fear. I spent time homeless, because I couldn’t secure employment. 

‘I’m done asking you for help. I’m asking you to change.’

The second Open Letter, published in January this year, asks Augsburg to stop using her athletic achievements on its internet site. ‘Augsburg University has financially exploited thousands of students’, she writes. ‘I do not condone this. I ask that you immediately take down any honors, awards and/or publications including my name at Augsburg University. This includes my athlete biography online, any stories regarding my performance online or in print, any plaques or images, and any displayed school records.’

Yet six months later, Rice’s athletic achievements and image still feature extensively1 on Augsburg’s internet site. “At the moment, I am keen to stop them using my image”, she says. “They’re basically defrauding kids and I strongly disagree with that. They’re still using my image. I graduated with the highest honours and still ended up in this situation. They’re recruiting more vulnerable kids on a false promise.

“I couldn’t get a job and all they could offer me was more education. I ended up homeless and had to take on debt.”

Last year, the NCAA changed its policies to allow student athletes to be compensated for use of their image, after California proposed an Act dubbed ‘Fair Pay to Play’. Clarification on how these new rules may work has been delayed by the onset of Covid-19, but Rice is hoping that such changes could help other student athletes that find themselves in a similar situation to hers.

Perhaps partly as a consequence of the commercialisation of education, a University degree is no longer a guarantee for employment. Increasingly, a University degree does appear to guarantee a certain level of debt. 

Loans can help, but they must be repaid. In the UK, there are three types, all of which require earnings above £19,390 per year after graduation to trigger repayment. In the US, there is an option to defer payment on loans and adjust loan payments if you are unemployed or underemployed. However, the loan the University gave Rice through a ‘student account’ had to be repaid immediately upon graduation, whether she or not she was successful in securing employment. 

This loan was passed to a debt collection agency. The rest of Rice’s loans are also accruing interest she describes as “significant”, although payments are deferred or decreased at present. However, the amount she is paying to service her loans is increasing instead of decreasing, as she has struggled to secure suitable employment.

As such, Rice objects to the use of her image to attract more student athletes into higher education and potential debt. She is proud of her achievements, but feels that the reality is that many student athletes are likely to enter debt, and some may encounter the same issues she faced. 

Due to rising costs and a more competitive employment market, it isn’t unreasonable to expect US Universities such as Augsburg to take responsibility for their student athletes. Given the wealth of US College sport, it also isn’t unreasonable to expect some compensation if your image is used to promote the student athlete lifestyle. If an athlete asks you to stop using their image, it isn’t difficult to do.

Footnotes

1. ‘Tesema, Rice net school records at Iowa State Classic’: https://athletics.augsburg.edu/news/2013/2/9/mtrk02091.aspx; ‘Lauren Rice named NCAA Elite 89 & MIAC Elite 22 Award-Winner’: https://athletics.augsburg.edu/news/2014/3/13/wtrk031314.aspx

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