For years, the United States Olympic Committee has been seeking a solution to the dilemma of how to help athletes get higher education - particularly athletes whose disciplines are not part of collegiate sports programs and athletes whose competitive schedules make it nearly impossible for them to attend bricks-and-mortar universities.
"It has been a huge problem," USOC chief executive Scott Blackmun said.
That is why Blackmun is so enthusiastic over the sponsorship deal the USOC is announcing Wednesday with Downers Grove-based DeVry Inc., a global provider of educational services.
DeVry will provide the USOC both cash and value-in-kind, which means helping subsidize the educations of many athletes training for the Olympics or Paralympics. Terms of the subsidies are yet to be determined.
The deal runs through 2016.
The other salient point in the deal is it will give athletes the chance to get an education online, which is a core part of DeVry's offerings at both its undergraduate school. DeVry University and its Keller Graduate School of Management.
"This is going to make a meaningful difference in the lives of many athletes," Blackmun said.
But the arrangement will not be without detractors, given controversy about the default rate on federal student loans at for-profit universities like DeVry. Critics say some of these schools take unfair financial advantage of low-income students with no other education alternatives, leaving the government stuck with the unpaid loans.
Asked how he would answer criticism of having the USOC become aligned with a for-profit, publicly-traded educational institution, Blackmun answered, "It is the fact they are a private sector university that gives them the flexibility to support U.S. Olympic and Paralympic athletes in this way."
Blackmun said the DeVry deal would not affect the long USOC relationship with Northern Michigan University, site of the U.S. Olympic Education Center. Athletes training there -- 85 national team members in 2010 - receive discounted room and board plus tuition assistance in arrangements between the university and the national federation to which the athletes belong.
"We don't want to foreclose on any opportunities for our athletes," Blackmun said.
Six Team USA athletes -- two pentathletes, a wrestler, a shooter, a weightlifter and a wrestler - already have enrolled in DeVry programs as either undergrads or grad students.