Controversy Over Combs’ $54,000 UCLA Merit Scholarship

The recently announced $54,000 athletic scholarship given to Justin Dior Combs, the son of the rapper and entrepreneur Sean “Diddy” Combs, to attend UCLA has raised a number of questions regarding the appropriateness of giving out scholarships to children of very rich parents. In his column for Forbes, James Marshall Crotty attempts to answer these questions.

At the time when the California public university system is struggling under an ever-more-extensive budget cuts, it’s no wonder that some are wondering if that is the best way for the school to spend its limited funds. The scholarship that Combs received is considered merit-based, and he qualified for it based on his 3.75 high school grade point average and his skills as a cornerback for the Iona Prep football team. Many colleges and universities make such scholarships need-blind, in part to encourage excellent students from low-income backgrounds to apply and attend the school. It is inevitable, however, that such scholarships also occasionally go to young adults whose families could well afford the tuition themselves. Does it follow, then, that schools should limit their need-blind policies to the cases when there’s an actual need?

 UCLA spokesperson Ricardo Vazquez said in an official statement that, “Unlike need-based scholarships, athletic scholarships are awarded to students strictly on the basis of their athletic and academic ability — not their financial need. Athletic scholarships, such as those awarded to football or basketball players, do not rely on state funds. Instead, these scholarships are entirely funded through UCLA Athletics ticket sales, corporate partnerships, media contracts and private donations from supporters.”

So, if the scholarship isn’t actually paid out of the funds allocated to the school by the state, why the uproar? The answer is “optics.” It seems to matter less that Combs scholarship was entirely deserved and, if he were to turn it down, the next candidate might turn out to be from a family similarly well-off, than the fact that the entire thing “looks bad.”

By the way, Justin Combs’ situation is not unique. The sports-playing sons of other wealthy celebrities also received full collegiate scholarships, including the sons of Doc Rivers (Duke’s Austin Rivers), Tim Hardaway (Michigan’s Tim Hardaway, Jr.) and Denzel Washington (Penn’s Malcolm Washington). However, Justin Combs might be the first celebrity son on a full athletic scholarship to receive a $360,000 Maybach automobile– chauffeur included — for his 16th birthday, albeit, according to Dad Diddy, for use only on “special occasions.”

But “looks bad” doesn’t automatically translate to “is wrong” — especially not in this case, argues Crotty. Considering how much money flows to the university proper from the UCLA Bruins football program, it is entirely reasonable for the school to recruit the best players it can, in order to keep the program popular so it can keep bringing in money from ticket sales, merchandizing and other things. These scholarships translate to tangible benefits to all UCLA students, rich and poor, and there’s absolutely nothing “bad” about that.