After exhaustive debate in recent years, the Patriot League has decided to start awarding athletic scholarships in football - 15 each year - beginning with the 2013 season.

The league announced the new policy on Monday, although the decision by its school presidents was termed a "consensus" and not likely a unanimous vote, which in the coming years may fail to fully remove the cloud that has hung over the league.

Bucknell, Colgate, Holy Cross, Lafayette and Lehigh are full Patriot League members which sponsor football, while Fordham and Georgetown are associate members for the sport. Fordham started offering athletic scholarships in 2010 and was planning to leave the FCS league if they were not voted in league- wide, while Georgetown was generally believed to be against a change in policy.

Army and Navy, which participate on the FBS level, and American, which doesn't sponsor football, also were part of the league's vote, which limited Patriot teams to 15 athletic scholarships, including those to transfers, in future recruiting classes.

"First of all, we make this decision in recognition that we believe that it will help the league to remain strong and competitive, both with regard to our academic goals, which are foremost in the league, and to athletic competitiveness," Lafayette College president Dr. Daniel H. Weiss, the chair of the league council of presidents, said on a conference call.

"We believe over time that this decision is in the best interest of the league because it will help us with future membership prospects for joining the league, it will help us with scheduling out-of-league competitors in football, it will allow us to be more competitive in admissions with regards to identifying and recruiting to our campuses' outstanding students who also play Division I football at the level of the Patriot League.

"The decision that was reached is the result of several years of discussion and analysis by the presidents and their colleagues, and it represents the consensus, and argues that it is the right thing for the league to do at this time."

Patriot League football celebrated its 25th anniversary last year. Need-based financial aid has always been offered to student-athletes, but the athletic scholarships, or merit-based financial aid, have not been offered despite being allowed by the league's 22 other sports. Football has been considered a separate entity by the league.

The need-based financial aid will continue alongside the athletic scholarships. However, athletic scholarships will not be offered to this year's recruits or any student-athletes already in the programs. Only those enrolling in the fall of 2013 will be eligible.

Holy Cross athletic director Richard M. Regan Jr., the chair of the league's committee on athletic administration, said he expects the addition of athletic scholarships to at least double the size of the recruiting pool.

Since adding scholarships, Fordham has been declared ineligible for the Patriot championship and the league's automatic bid to the FCS playoffs. The league announced that later this spring a decision will be made regarding when that policy will change.

Patriot League executive director Carolyn Schlie Femovich said league expansion could result from the change in policy.

"I don't think we're going to be in any rush," she said. "I think there would be some attractiveness to adding one or two more members on the football side and perhaps one or two more members on the full member side. Those conversations have yet to take place. I expect that we'll be in a good position to do that over the course of the next year or so."