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Opportunity Vanderbilt: An Explainer

No, Vanderbilt does not get “27 full scholarships.” Stop it.

With the NCAA Regionals starting this weekend, the Vanderbilt baseball team is #2 in the country and eyeing its second national title. Since 2010, Vanderbilt has won its regional seven times in nine years, made the College World Series thrice, and won it all in 2014. Most of the credit for this goes to Tim Corbin, who took over a struggling program in 2003 and is responsible for basically all of Vanderbilt’s history as a baseball program; prior to 2003, Vanderbilt had made the NCAA Tournament just three times and hadn’t made it at all since 1980.

Unless, of course, you are a fan of a rival SEC school, but particularly those in Mississippi and Alabama. In which case you like to point out that of course Vanderbilt is successful in baseball, because Vanderbilt gets, like, 27 full scholarships while everyone else gets 11.7.

This is, of course, false. Except now what started as a fan beef has worked its way into discussions by Serious College Baseball People (to the extent that those exist, anyway.) So let’s go through all of this and explain why no, Vanderbilt does not actually get 27 baseball scholarships.

What is Opportunity Vanderbilt?

Okay. There is a kernel of truth to the criticism.

About a decade ago, Vanderbilt University launched a new financial aid initiative known as “Opportunity Vanderbilt.” The goal behind the program was to ensure that any student who got admitted to the university would not be stopped by the cost of attendance; in addition, this was around the time when mounting student loan debt started to be recognized as a real problem. Vanderbilt’s solution was to determine each admitted student’s expected family contribution, subtract that from the university’s total cost of attendance, and fund the remainder of the cost of attendance through grants. A different way of looking at it is that Vanderbilt determines what you and your family can afford to pay, and makes that your cost of attendance. Vanderbilt is hardly the only elite private university that does this, by the way: several Ivy League schools do this, and Rice recently launched such a program.

I’ll admit here that the aim of such programs may not be entirely altruistic. In the bad old days before Opportunity Vanderbilt and similar financial aid programs were launched, frequently top students would actually turn down offers of admission and instead attend a less-expensive state school or sometimes a lower-tier private school that happened to offer a lot of scholarship money. I know; I was there.

That’s a pretty significant reversal from the typical state school, which has a lower sticker price across the board, but many of them are notoriously stingy with financial aid — and especially with grants and scholarships that don’t have to be paid back. And that’s even considering HOPE scholarships, awarded by the state for in-state students attending in-state colleges and universities. Tennessee’s HOPE scholarship, for instance, awards $1,750 a semester for freshmen and sophomores, $2,250 a semester for juniors and seniors — which frankly isn’t much when the total cost of attendance at the University of Tennessee’s Knoxville campus is around $30,000 a year for in-state students. Thanks to Opportunity Vanderbilt, it’s actually cheaper for some students to attend Vanderbilt than UT. (Assuming you can get into Vanderbilt, anyway.)

Okay, so what exactly does this have to do with baseball?

It has everything to do with baseball! No, not really, but the Opportunity Vanderbilt initiative has a direct effect on Vanderbilt baseball because of NCAA scholarship rules.

Unlike football and basketball, the two “head count” sports (there are more, but those are the two in which Vanderbilt competes), baseball is considered an “equivalency” sport by the NCAA. What that means is that instead of simply counting the number of student-athletes who are getting financial aid related to athletics (or were “recruited” athletes who are getting any sort of financial aid from the university), the NCAA counts the total amount of athletic aid received by players in the sport. In football, if a team had two players who are getting a 50 percent scholarship, that would count as two scholarships against the 85-scholarship limit. In baseball, it would count as one scholarship against the limit of 11.7.

Where things get tricky with baseball and other equivalency sports, though, is in deciding what financial aid counts toward the scholarship limit. That’s a two-step process: first, the NCAA determines if a student-athlete is a “counter” for scholarship purposes. In equivalency sports, that means that some portion of the student-athlete’s financial aid is athletic aid. Once you’re a counter, all of your financial aid from the university is counted toward the scholarship limit, regardless of whether it’s athletic aid or not. But if you’re not considered a “counter” — meaning that you aren’t on an athletic scholarship — none of your financial aid counts toward the limit, even if you’re getting your entire cost of attendance paid for.

That latter part is, more than likely, the basis of the complaints from other baseball programs. Vanderbilt can simply give a player a full ride through need-based grants, and they get a player on a full ride without it counting against the scholarship limit. That seems like it would be kind of a big deal, right?

Well, the reality is that grants covering the full cost of attendance are actually pretty rare. Here’s a handy brochure (a few years old, but it gets the point across) about the Opportunity Vanderbilt program, and while there are certainly students getting something close to the full cost of attendance, they’re the exception and not the rule. And they’re mostly coming from the lower end of the income scale. (As that relates to college baseball, you’re not really supposed to talk about this — but probably the majority of college baseball players come from affluent families ... you know, the same parents who have had their kids on travel baseball teams since they were 10. Relatively few of them are in the income range where Opportunity Vanderbilt is knocking $60,000 off the cost of attendance.)

The other issue here is that if a player is also getting a baseball scholarship, any financial aid they’re getting from Opportunity Vanderbilt gets counted against the scholarship limit. This actually puts Vanderbilt in something of a tricky spot if a player is, say, getting an aid package around $40,000 or so: that puts the player in a position where he’s still paying what he would pay to attend a state school, but a state school might be able to put him on scholarship and make his cost of attending even lower than what Vanderbilt can.

Oh yeah. The cost of state schools.

So, here’s a handy table to start with. This is important.

SEC Schools — Cost of Attendance

Cost of attendance In-state Out-of-state
Cost of attendance In-state Out-of-state
Alabama $29,424 $46,744
Arkansas $24,916 $40,162
Auburn $31,282 $49,954
Florida $21,131 $43,409
Georgia $26,404 $44,978
Kentucky $29,530 $45,634
LSU $29,704 $46,381
Mississippi State $24,370 $38,410
Missouri $26,611 $43,330
Ole Miss $24,822 $40,086
South Carolina $27,062 $47,162
Tennessee $30,930 $49,350
Texas A&M $27,536 $53,102
Vanderbilt LOL WUT $67,392
Sewanee what is that $56,914
Tulane 404 file not found $69,764

One of these things is not like the others.

Let’s go back to that “11.7 scholarships” thing. While Vanderbilt might be reducing its cost of attendance for some students through the Opportunity Vanderbilt program, it’s also starting from a much higher point than anyone else in the SEC. In-state tuition, after all, is still a thing at the other 13 SEC schools. While the NCAA calculates the cost of attendance for scholarship purposes based on the out-of-state cost for state schools, a waiver of the difference between in-state and out-of-state tuition is specifically excluded from scholarship counting — even if the student-athlete is getting an athletic scholarship. And that’s still the case if the student is not actually from the state. For instance, Arkansas applies in-state tuition not only to residents of Arkansas, but also to residents of states that border Arkansas — a list that includes Texas, the second-largest state in the country.

And you know what else doesn’t count? HOPE scholarships. Since those aren’t awarded by the university itself (just, well, the same state legislature that funds the public universities in its state), those don’t count.

Here’s an illustration of how this works. The University of Tennessee recruits an in-state player; right off the bat, his total cost of attendance is $30,930. Let’s assume this player qualifies for a HOPE scholarship; without counting a single dollar toward Tennessee’s scholarship limit, the player is now paying $27,430.

And now, let’s put him on a 50 percent scholarship for baseball. His total cost of attendance is now $11,965 — still not cheap, but a manageable amount for many families, particularly ones who think their son might play baseball professionally down the road.

Vanderbilt offers the same kid a 75 percent scholarship. His cost of attendance is now $16,848. (He still gets the HOPE scholarship, of course, so Vanderbilt ends up being a bit cheaper — but Vanderbilt has also just used more of its scholarship allotment to lower the cost this much.) And, of course, if he happens to qualify for any money through Opportunity Vanderbilt, that now gets counted as well.

More accurately, Opportunity Vanderbilt simply levels the playing field.

At many of the public schools in the SEC, through the neat tricks of in-state tuition, out-of-state tuition waivers, and HOPE scholarships, they can get pretty close to filling out their roster while having the vast majority of the players paying relatively little to attend. Without Opportunity Vanderbilt, Vanderbilt would barely be able to fill out a starting lineup and a weekend rotation on the 11.7 scholarship limit alone — at least, not without finding a few kids willing to pay $30,000 or more to attend the university.

So the truth is that Vanderbilt’s generous financial aid program mostly just has the effect of erasing the advantages that cheaper state schools have in the scholarship game. The real heavy lifting here is done by Vanderbilt’s academic reputation (which makes it a bit more palatable for families to pay in the low five figures) and Tim Corbin (who is, in fact, one of the best coaches in college baseball.) But without Opportunity Vanderbilt, the Commodores would likely have a tough time being competitive in the SEC.