Stanford University’s Athletic Scholarship Policy

Though it is difficult to gain admission to Stanford University, for many it is more difficult to pay for Stanford’s high tuition.  With total annual costs approaching $30,000, few can help being overwhelmed by the expense.  Thankfully, the University gives out numerous grants, loans, and work-study funds based on students’ financial need, allowing them the opportunity to attend this fine institution despite less-than-wealthy backgrounds.  However, one group receives funding not because of financial need but merit: athletes.

Are they fair?

What about those talented in drama, language, science, music, or art?  Stanford admits people based on these talents but does not give them any merit money.   Other than Presidential Scholars (who receive money for research, not tuition), merit scholarships are not given to those talented in any area but athletics.  Giving money to one talent but not to others is inherently unfair.  No one talent should be given precedence over another, as each student brings a diverse mix of qualities that makes him or her special.  Even athletes almost always have another talent or ability that qualifies them for admission, yet despite how wonderful this talent may be, they cannot receive any money for it.  To single out one talent (athletic ability) is to deny the other talents’ importance.

Are they necessary?

Some may argue that the University needs different policies for athletes because these scholarships are necessary to attract top-notch athletes to the school whereas top-notch musicians, thespians, scholars, etc. are already attracted to Stanford.  While, indeed, the scholarships attract some individuals who might otherwise not come to Stanford, do we really need to attract these individuals with scholarships?

Other schools’ experiences, particularly those in the Ivy League, which bans all merit scholarships—both athletic and otherwise—show that one does not need athletic scholarships to maintain high athletic standards and the alumni support that comes with it.  Dartmouth College, for example, until recently was the NCAA cross country champion, despite the fact that not a single player received an athletic scholarship.  (Though Stanford now holds the title, this has been attributed not to athletic scholarships but to our stealing Dartmouth’s cross country coach!)  Indeed, Dartmouth’s alumni have an almost psychotic devotion to their school, showing that athletic scholarships are certainly not a prerequisite to alumni donations.

While no one claims that the Ivy League schools (and other non-athletic scholarship schools) are athletic powerhouses, they certainly hold their own. Dartmouth has won over 20 team and 100 individual national championships.1   Harvard and Yale virtually invented collegiate football rivalries back in 1852, decades before the first Big Game.  Harvard’s women’s basketball team beat Stanford in the NCAA championships last year; Harvard crew has been first in the nation nine times since 1982.2  Scholarships simply are not necessary for athletic success.  Nor do they ensure it: Stanford’s 1998 football team shows that even with scholarships, one can have a losing team.  While it might mean giving up the Sears Directors Cup and perhaps a few more Big Game losses, getting rid of athletic scholarships would not destroy Cardinal athletics but rather recreate it in the spirit of fairness.

Do they help their recipients?

Perhaps more important than such scholarships’ affect on the University as a whole is their impact on the students who receive them.  Though athletic scholarships would seem to help their recipients, they can also hurt them by encouraging them to attend Stanford because of money rather than because they are good matches for the school. Though it is hard to imagine, there are some students for whom Stanford would not be the best school.  Someone may want to attend another school, yet come to Stanford because, with an athletic scholarship, the price is right.  The university should not encourage students to decide which school to attend based on money rather than on the schools’ merits, hurting the very people the scholarships aim to help.

Ceasing to give athletic scholarships would make Stanford’s financial aid process more fair for both athletes and non-athletes alike.  Furthermore, this would re-emphasize the primary purpose the university: scholarship. Universities are first and foremost academic institutions of learning; extracurricular programs, though important, are not the purpose for universities’ existence.  Essentially, Stanford is in the business of education, not the business of sports.  Doing away with athletic scholarships would serve to affirm this fact.

1. From the Dartmouth Athletics Web Site at
2. From the Harvard University Athletics Web Site at http://

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©1998 By Luke Swartz.  All Rights Reserved.