Ivy League sports, it turns out, are actually pretty good again. Last year Yale men’s hockey team was the top team in America. Last year Cornell’s wrestling team was no. 1 all winter long. Its basketball team went to the final 16 of the N.C.A.A. tournament. This year Harvard men’s basketball team was among the nation’s top 25 teams.

That’s great, but it can’t all be a result of good coaching, can it? Well no, it turns out the improvement in the quality of Ivy League sports has a lot to do with financial aid.

According to an article by Bill Pennington in the New York Times:

This renaissance in a league known as the Ancient Eight can be traced to something that has nothing to do with sports: new policies that have substantially enhanced financial aid for all admitted students, making it easier to recruit elite athletes, coaches and athletic administrators said.

Basically, back in 1985, if a school like Princeton wanted to improve its football team by enrolling a reasonably good student who happened to be a star football player, it faced a problem: that student was likely to get a lot more money from a school like University of Maryland or Notre Dame. Those schools could offer athletic scholarships. Princeton could only offer a great athlete the same money it could offer any other admitted student: financial aid based on the wealth of the student’s parents.

This is still true, it’s just that now there’s a lot more money available. Pennington again:

The Ivy League does not award athletic scholarships, but led by endowment-rich members like Harvard, Yale and Princeton, the conference has spent hundreds of millions of dollars in additional need-based aid — with most of the universities all but eliminating student loans and essentially doubling the size of grants meant for middle-income families.

Now schools like Princeton have a lot more power in the financial aid game.

That’s because almost everyone gets massive financial aid at America’s top schools. This means that many college athletes can now essentially go to Ivy League colleges for free. This makes the eight schools much, much more attractive to potential college athletes and their parents.

According to the article, this chance is especially important in other, lower-tier sports like soccer and lacrosse. Most American schools only offer only partial scholarships for such sports but Ivy schools have the power to offer full rides. That makes such offers much more attractive. This is part of the reason their teams are so good.

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Daniel Luzer

Daniel Luzer is the news editor at Governing Magazine and former web editor of the Washington Monthly. Find him on Twitter: @Daniel_Luzer