Biden/Harris Free-Tuition Plan Could Offer Athletes an Escape From NCAA Stranglehold

Sen. Kamala Harris campaigns at Florida Memorial University, where she announced her ticket’s plans for offering free tuition to students.
Sen. Kamala Harris campaigns at Florida Memorial University, where she announced her ticket’s plans for offering free tuition to students.
Photo: Getty

What happens when free tuition and free labor collide?

That’s the question for NCAA athletics after Democratic vice presidential candidate Sen. Kamala Harris last week announced that she and top-of-the-ticket-mate Joe Biden are calling for free tuition at public universities and public/private historically Black colleges and universities (HBCUs) for students who come from families with an income below $125,000.


In thinking about the current, broken, free-labor system of college athletics — tied to the on-field and on-court performance of students, but not sharing any of the revenue with them — it stands to reason that a need-based, free-tuition plan would give many student-athletes much more flexibility to choose where they would prefer to attend school and compete in sports (or not). It would simultaneously give college athletic directors and coaches flexibility in building their teams. Win-win, seemingly. But there are certainly other factors at play, both independently, and smashing into each other in the gluttonous, money-making machine that is the NCAA.

Before even connecting a free-tuition plan to college athletics, though, the following must first be understood:

  1. This is merely a proposal from the campaign trail, one that would require many hoops to be located and leaped through before passage.
  2. There are other proposals already on Capitol Hill toward NCAA reform, one of which, the College Athletes Bill of Rights, that would require paying the players their revenue-shared slice of the pie.
  3. There is ongoing debate among those who study higher education as to whether the narrowly defined proposal would, in fact, equitably benefit all prospective students in the ways intended.

For instance, tying free-tuition to parents’ income is not exactly the favored route of many advocates, nor is it as cut-and-dry as it sounds. Also, some free-tuition plans are “last dollar” plans, bridging the gap between financial aid and full tuition cost, like New York’s Excelsior Scholarship. But even actual “free” tuition plans don’t always account for the new economics of college. From Dr. Sara Goldrick-Rab, author of Paying the Price: College Costs, Financial Aid, and the Betrayal of the American Dream, in The Atlantic:

Consider how the financial-aid formula assesses what a student will pay for college. Families complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) and when they finish, they are told their “expected family contribution” (EFC). This is the number that parents are expected to pay to help send a young student to college, at least as long as the student doesn’t have a spouse or child of her own. The formula leading to the number doesn’t take into account the parents’ debt, even from their own educations. Yet with the EFC, the government makes a clear assertion: When it comes to paying for college, parents should help their students.

But sometimes they can’t. Sometimes, in fact, the money moves the opposite direction.


And speaking of money moving in the opposite direction, the billions of dollars being generated by the performance of student-athletes currently goes to everyone but them, aside from their scholarships. And that, in essence, is preventing them from the potential for millions in revenue-sharing while in school, and future generational wealth that stems from those dollars afterward. Those are the findings of a recent study entitled, “How the NCAA’s Empire Robs Predominantly Black Athletes of Billions in Generational Wealth.”

From that report:

“From the perspective of generational wealth, the denial of player access to their fair-market value has cost them during the years when they were playing, as well as the potential for what that money would mean to their long-term financial security. For example, if a college football or men’s basketball player invested just $100,000 of what they should be compensated for under a fair revenue-sharing agreement into a retirement account at 6% interest over 40 years, their investment would accrue to $1,028,572.”


Dr. Ellen J. Staurowsky, a co-author of that groundbreaking study, sees the potential impact of the very specific Biden/Harris proposal — limited to certain schools and certain family income levels — as a cornucopia of unknowns, but with good potential for giving many student-athletes other avenues to pursue their education. It also means the value of an athletic scholarship is somewhat diminished, and in some cases, will be rendered moot by students choosing the need-based scholarship instead.

“To me, [revenue sharing for players] is where we’ve needed to go for many, many years,” says Staurowsky. “But I think fundamentally that there’s sort of a lie in all of this: which is that we expect athletes to be doing these full-time jobs in a highly, hyper-competitive environment with billions on the line … and to expect players in that environment to sort of pretend that they are full-time students, with access to the best environment to learn in, is patently false, I would argue. That’s not to say there can’t be a blending of the two.”


That blending could be the biggest benefit of a free-tuition plan, she believes: Giving students who qualify for free tuition the option to just be a student, rather than a student-athlete.

“This proposal may take pressure off individuals who want to go to college but think athletic performance is their only way in,” says Staurowsky, who is also a professor of sports media at the Park School of Communications at Ithaca College in upstate New York.


Here are some of the other issues that arise when considering the Biden/Harris proposal in the current NCAA landscape:

What proportion of student-athletes would a free-tuition plan affect? Would any population benefit more than another?

The Professional Collegiate League (PCL) is a group attempting to upend the NCAA’s stranglehold on young athletes. Intended as an alternative, pro option for college-age players, the PCL would provide guaranteed salaries while playing, and a lifetime full academic scholarship good at any point after their playing careers are over. The PCL is aiming to have its first eight teams on the court in summer 2021, state of the world pending.


In their clarion call for a new system, the PCL cites that “over 50 percent of college basketball players in the Power 5 Conferences come from low socioeconomic backgrounds.” So yes, many potential student-athletes could benefit from a free-tuition plan without having to rely on athletics.

“We feel the education component is integral to the college athlete experience, especially communities that are often only viewed for athletic performance, often predominantly Black communities,” says Ricky Volante, co-founder of the PCL. “But they are whole people — not just athletes. We are 100 percent supportive of any policy initiative where universal free education is provided. And we love the fact that HBCUs are included in this proposal, going back to our roots.” (The PCL had recruited HBCUs to partner with the league, but were rebuffed.)


Staurowsky echoes Volante: “One of the troubling dynamics, especially with top-tier programs, especially from a racial perspective, is that not all scholarships are the same. If you are in football and your body is taking a beating and you may suffer concussions with reverberations over a lifetime — that is not the same kind of experience that another student may get to be a business student via merit scholarship.”

How does free tuition affect recruiting for different sports?

As Staurowsky explained, there is a difference between “head count” scholarship sports, like football, where a coach is given a set number of full scholarships to dole out, and “equivalency” sports, where a coach has a set amount to spend and can do so with full or partial scholarships, dependent on a team’s needs.


“If coaches only had a certain pool of athletic scholarship money,” Staurowsky said, “would they then feel like they could recruit other athletes that they couldn’t before because they would be fully funded? In theory, it might end up shoring up equivalency sports and creating more opportunities.”

For those students covered by a free-tuition plan, would housing costs and other miscellaneous expenses be included? And doesn’t a free-tuition option devalue an athletic scholarship by rendering it, essentially, a room-and-board-and-fringe plan?

The NCAA itself states that “Full scholarships cover tuition and fees, room, board and course-related books. Most student-athletes who receive athletics scholarships receive an amount covering a portion of these costs.” The Biden/Harris plan doesn’t cover those items. If the current system remains in place, students who could potentially choose between an athletic or need-based scholarship could feel compelled to opt for the more comprehensive one, but at a cost of having less time to dedicate to “student” life.


It is interesting to note that in that same definition of scholarships, the NCAA has this to say about their value: “A college education is the most rewarding benefit of the student-athlete experience.”

Contrast that with a survey in April by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice which found that almost one quarter of Division I athletes surveyed were food insecure in the 30 days prior to the survey, and nearly 14 percent were experiencing homelessness in the past year. The results expose the unspoken truth that athletic scholarships do not necessarily provide everything a student needs to succeed on the field or in the classroom. Even former NBA star Shabazz Napier said he sometimes went to bed starving, even in the midst of UConn’s 2014 run to the NCAA title. “There’s hungry nights and I’m not able to eat and I still got to play up to my capabilities. ... When you see your jersey getting sold — it may not have your last name on it — but when you see your jersey getting sold and things like that, you feel like you want something in return.”


Would a free-tuition plan somehow change the hearts and minds of NCAA leadership to upend the system and pay the players?


No. Not a chance. Stop that rational thinking right now. “There are four ways to bring down an economic cartel,” Volante said. “Unionization, legislation, litigation or competition.

“The first three paths have proven unsuccessful, so even though we knew it would be a huge lift to get off the ground, we thought competition was the best way to bring about holistic and systemic change.”


Volante is also working with Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ) and Chris Murphy (D-CT) on their College Athletes Bill of Rights, in hopes that if there is legislative change out there somewhere on the horizon, it doesn’t get watered down.

“You’ve got to go as far to the left as possible to start, because you accept that when it gets to the floor and there’s horse trading, you’re going to lose certain things,” said Volante. “If too much gets stripped away, you wind up looking like the NCAA’s own proposal. That’s a big fear for us in terms of the advocate work we do for students. But I don’t see wholesale change coming legislatively.”


The Biden/Harris proposal raises as many questions as it answers in regards to college athletics. What’s clear is what’s always been clear to advocates: The more options that student athletes have to pursue an education, the better — and the more leverage they can apply in their recruitment.

“They’re saying the sky is gonna fall if these athletes are treated like every other student and it’s completely dysfunctional thinking,” says Staurowsky. “In terms of college access, if all of these factors can be reworked in a responsible way to provide legitimate access to education, that would create a win all around.”

Deputy Editor, Deadspin. Author, "One Lucky Fan: From Bleachers to Box Seats, Chasing the Ultimate Sports Dream to Visit All 123 MLB, NBA, NFL & NHL Teams." Earthwalker.