During the 2013 session of the Legislature the state created, with HB1204, what is called the Challenge Grants fund. That fund had a $29 million appropriation which would be used to match private donations to the state’s universities. For ever $2 in private dollars raised the universities get $1 in public dollars.
The idea was to use public dollars to seed a much larger number of dollars from the private sector. In December, after finishing their final round of grant making, Lt. Governor Drew Wrigley (who chairs the committee overseeing the grants) called the program “a resounding success.”
That may be if success if measured as nothing more than how much money you give the universities, but there are some real questions about whether or not all of the grant dollars were awarded appropriately.
According to the legislation creating the challenge grunts, they were to be used “for projects dedicated exclusively to the advancement of academics.” Yet nearly a quarter of a million dollars in grant funds went to athletic scholarships, mostly at North Dakota State University.
During the December 17, 2014, meeting of the Challenge Fund committee a question was brought up about whether or not grants to athletic scholarships were allowed, but it was dismissed by Wrigley. Here’s an excerpt from the minutes:
The question is, do athletic scholarships enhance academics? Or do they enhance the athletic programs they serve by bolstering recruitment? Sure, athletic scholarships cover the education of student athletes, but typically those athletes aren’t recruited to bolster academics on campus. They’re recruited to help sports teams win games.
North Dakota State University was by far the largest recipient of grants for athletic scholarships with six grants. Dickinson State and Minot State each received two grants for athletic scholarships.
In terms of dollars, these schools received over $716,000 in funds for athletic scholarships through the grant program including over $238,000 in public dollars. This according to grant fund data obtained from the North Dakota University System via an open records request (you can read the full list of grants below):
To put these numbers into perspective, according to the NCAA-approved athletic recruiting website NCSA the average athlete scholarship amount for a first-time freshman at NDSU is $8,029.
This isn’t a huge amount of money both in terms of the number of scholarships it can fund and the total Challenge Fund grants made, but with a push on for lawmakers to maintain this program (another $29 million appropriation for it is in the higher ed budget) the question of whether or not these funds can be diverted to athletics probably needs to be answered.
Certainly these scholarship dollars are of great assistance to the athletic programs receiving them. The NCAA monitors athletic scholarships specifically because they’re a powerful recruiting tool. If the intent of the Legislature was to ensure that this fund was focused on academics, they may want to define the terms of the fund in such a way as to make it clear that bolstering the recruitment of athletes is not an academic goal.