It is a common practice for American universities to offer generous scholarships to foreign student-athletes. What is the point of a such investment?
Short- and long-term development
US coaches offer large scholarship to foreign student-athletes (FSA) who will make their teams better. This of course makes sense. In this scenario, scholarships are a form of “payment” for athletic “services”. Because FSAs tend to be, ceteris paribus, better than their US peers, they demand higher scholarships. And since every coach wants to make his or her team better right away, bringing FSAs allows them to do just that. However, there is a hidden benefit to having intentional athletes on your team that many people overlook. Mainly, FSAs positively impact their teams long after they graduate from college. One of the law of sports is that good athletes go to good programs; it is as simple as that. If you sign a talented FSA in year one, this will probably mean that in years two, three, and four your recruiting class will be better than before. Moreover, this interaction extends to international recruiting as well. Again success breeds success. To be sure, every coach would like to recruit foreign-born Olympians if possible, but before that can happen their program needs to get incrementally better over an extended period of time. The basic point is this: if your college athletic program is average, the best way to break the cycle of mediocrity is to offer scholarships to foreign athletes. If you recruit the right person, your program will get better right away and in the long-term. In many ways, this strategy is almost always low-risk high-reward, because even poor performing FSA will not stay on the books forever.
Some might object to my analysis, arguing that what I am advocating here amounts to essentially overpaying for international students and hoping that this strategy works out, while the same approach could be used to pursue talented and US born athletes. This objection is true only in theory. In practice, there exists a profound asymmetry between foreign students and US athletes, and how they negotiate their scholarships. Let me illustrate this point with one quick example. When deciding which university to attend, US athletes will look at a variety of factors, such as, prestige of the institution, proximity to home, weather, and so on. This approach produces a lot of stress, because the more variables you introduce, the more uncertain you are about what to do. And secondly, it compromises your bargaining position. Precisely because US students treat factors like geographical location and money similarly, they are willing to sacrifice one for another – “I will get less money in Florida but the weather is nice.” Not so with most international students. Because their parents tend to make significantly less money than American parents and because they do not qualify for student-loans, the value of their athletic scholarship is the single most important variable. Even if offered a 90% scholarship, many FSAs will still not be able to cover the remaining 10% because of out-of-state tuition and currency exchange ratios. For most international students the choice becomes binary: full-ride or staying home. This dichotomy actually makes their bargaining position stronger, because the “threat” of not accepting a very good offer of 90% is credible, and US coaches know it. American athletes overthink their scholarships because they can, while intentional students cannot afford to do so.
The second benefit of having FSAs on your team extends beyond athletic performance. International athletes tend to be very good students, but more importantly when they interact with their peers they are teaching them lessons that even the best professor can not offer. This might seem like an exaggeration when in fact it is not. Think about what it would take for you to move to another country as a teenager, not knowing its language, culture, customs. No family or friends. A fresh start for people young people who actually need support. Better yet, think about your son or daughter packing their bags and leaving for four years. The bottom line is that international students who come to America are much different from their US counterparts as well as their peers at home. Generally, FSAs tend to be independent, self-motivated, creative, and entrepreneurial – these are important assets for every US program. I do not wish to promote a romanticized picture of international students, they are taking in as much as they are giving back. But the bottom line remains. A US born athlete might be identical to a foreign-born one in every respect. When graduating from college they might have the same grades, training, and CVs. But they will not have the same life experiences, with the latter athlete being as much as 10 years ahead of the former.
Life after college
Fours years of college go by fast and many international students would like to stay in America. But this is no easy task. The immigration restrictions are formidable to the point that one also needs luck to stay in the US long-term. Putting political issues aside, many FSAs overcome these obstacles and contribute to American economy in a variety of ways. Overall, this is good for American companies, taxes, and everyone else.
I guess the main premise of my essay is that foreign athletes offer more to US colleges than just their short-term athletic performance, a lot more. I should add, however, that this enrichment works only if they adopt and work within the American framework. The point is not to change America but to contribute to it. This brings us to a related question: Is there a downside to brining international students on campus? Yes there is, but that is something I will deal with in another post.