Breaking from its longstanding policy, the Ivy League will permit current senior athletes to compete as full-time graduate students next academic year. The news, which comes after the application deadline for many Ivy League graduate schools, was confirmed by Matt Panto, the Ivy League associate executive director of strategic communications and external relations, on Thursday afternoon.
Panto noted that the new directive only applies to athletes who will remain at their current institutions for their graduate studies; the waiver is currently limited to the 2021-22 academic year. In addition, athletes must have remained on track to graduate in four years to take advantage of this opportunity.
The waiver was only the second time in conference history that all eight Ivy League schools signed off on a proposal that was organized at the student level, according to Monique Benjamin, the student-athlete advisory committee social media chair. Proposals to extend eligibility to graduate school were previously struck down twice: once when the fall sports season was canceled and again for winter sports.
According to Benjamin, a junior softball player, the group of representatives from Student Athlete Advisory Councils across the Ancient Eight were very strategic about advocating for the fifth-year waiver. Instead of writing an open letter, which Benjamin said may have fallen on “deaf ears,” SAAC representatives reached out to an Ivy League representative for consultation and subsequently produced a proposal.
The student-led portion of the movement has been in the works since at least November. Each Ancient Eight school contributed representatives—Columbia SAAC members currently serving as representatives to the Ivy League include Benjamin and Paul Akere, a junior football player—and the group even brought Ivy League Executive Director Robin Harris into the fold.
Harris “walked us through the whole process, and then we had an hour and a half long meeting one night, where she was just peppering us with questions and counterpoints to really strengthen our argument,” Benjamin explained.
The Ivy League is the only Division I conference in the NCAA that does not officially allow graduate students to compete on varsity athletic teams. Although the NCAA extended a year of eligibility for athletes who could not compete as the coronavirus spread last year, the Ivy League initially did not offer that option to its students. Before the Ivy League announced this break from current policy, students who retained a year of eligibility thanks to the NCAA’s previous coronavirus directive would have had to transfer to another institution for their last year.
In addition, despite the Ivy League canceling all fall and winter sports for the 2020-21 season, other NCAA conferences have resumed play. For athletes who play spring sports, like Benjamin, should the Ivy League also cancel its spring season, she would not receive an additional year of eligibility at the national level.
“The fifth year question is a lot more complex than people might think,” Benjamin said. “We have a year of eligibility that we were granted for missing that season, but so did the rest of the nation. So if we wanted to take our fifth year somewhere else, they have their roster spots filled for the most part already with their own fifth-years.”
Sabre fencer Maria Chart is one senior who could take advantage of this one-time opportunity. As an added bonus, she is already enrolled in the SEAS integrated master’s program. However, Chart said she would prefer to spend a couple of years in the industry before selecting a program of study for her master’s degree. Expense also plays a role—the Ivy League will not offer the undergraduate package of need-based financial aid to graduate students, who must rely on the aid policies of their graduate institutions.
“It’s expensive, and so it’s not really a feasible option for everybody, which I definitely understand. That’s something important to think about,” Chart said. “But I also think giving as many people as possible that opportunity is fantastic.”
Perhaps most importantly, Chart now has the opportunity to move back home to England and train with the British fencing team in hopes of qualifying for the 2024 Olympics.
“On a personal level for me, it’s an interesting compromise. New York’s really really great for fencing, but for that kind of team building side of it, it would really be great if I was in London with the rest of the team,” Chart explained. “So [it’s] kind of where my loyalties lie almost. Should I stay here and get my last season with the Columbia team, which I would love to do, or after four years, after I’ve put so much and had such a great experience, is it kind of time to move on and see what I can do more on the international circuit?”
Chart noted, however, that many Ivy athletes would not have the chance to compete professionally after college, and for them, this waiver is an important step for the league.
Ivy League athletes seeking to utilize the waiver will still have to apply to the graduate schools associated with their current institution. By the time the waiver was approved, many application deadlines had already passed.
Benjamin said she doesn’t expect “a lot of athletes” to take advantage of the opportunity. However, she added, “now it’s at least an option for them. It’s not a closed door, which was our goal.”
Benjamin does not anticipate that the one-year program will be renewed, nor that it will set a precedent for a conference that has long been stubborn about preventing graduate student-athletes. For now, “we’re really excited,” Benjamin said. “We felt like we’ve been asked as athletes to make a lot of sacrifices. And we wanted our presidents to kind of reciprocate.”