Cost of attendance might be price smaller D-I schools must pay to win (UPDATED)

Illustration by David Buitrago
Update: On Wednesday, a three-judge panel U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit ruled that limiting compensation to the cost of attendance was legally sufficient and that colleges and universities do not need to compensate athletes further.
According to the New York Times: The ruling upheld a federal judge’s finding last year that the N.C.A.A. “is not above antitrust laws” and that its rules have been too restrictive in maintaining amateurism. But the panel threw out the judge’s proposal that the N.C.A.A. allow colleges to pay athletes $5,000 per year in deferred compensation for name, likeness and image usage.
Cost of attendance, typically several thousand dollars more than a traditional scholarship, accounts for additional demands like traveling to and from home and paying cellphone bills. 
“The 9th Circuit Court opinion issued today is positive. It reaffirmed our ability to provide student-athletes cost of attendance as part of their athletic scholarship,” said Atlantic 10 Commissioner Bernadette V. McGlade. “Additionally, rescinding the concept of paying student-athletes and upholding amateurism is the right decision.”
This story was written before the court’s ruling.

You spent four years in high school putting up good numbers on the basketball court, getting good grades, and earned an athletic scholarship to a Division I college. The financial aid award covers tuition, books, room and board, even student fees. But what about life’s little expenses?

Maybe there’s a taxi to the airport after freshman year ($50). Or you’re a senior and need a new shirt for an on-campus interview with a prospective employer ($45). How about buying your cap and gown for graduation? At Coastal Carolina it’s $48 for just the basic bachelor’s degree package.

Add up four years’ worth of expenses — including the cell phone bill and a few late-night cups of coffee — and it’s not cheap.

For most college students, those expenses are covered by mom and dad, perhaps via student loan, or income from a part-time job. But for college athletes in season — with practice and travel schedules — it’s hard to hold down a part-time gig. And if your parents can’t throw you a few extra bucks a month? You might have to stay on campus during winter break or miss out on a family event back home.

But in January, the NCAA approved a cost of attendance stipend in addition to scholarships for athletes from the Power 5 conferences.  The other conferences have the option to adopt the initiative as well.

Not every Division I school is required to cover COA, but ambitious schools and conferences see it as a way to be more competitive in recruiting. For some schools, the COA stipend will be close to $5,000 per athlete. That’s enough to warrant serious consideration from a prospect who might otherwise be on the fence about choosing a school.

But how will the COA initiative affect smaller Division I programs? The Big South decided to mandate COA stipends for men’s and women’s basketball and leave other sports decisions up to the individual schools. Commissioner Kyle Kallander believes becoming more competitive in basketball will raise the profile of the entire conference, and part of being competitive nationally means getting on the COA bandwagon. It’s all part of the conference’s strategic plan, which was approved in late May.

Big South schools with recent NCAA tournament appearances like Coastal Carolina (men) and Liberty (women) will maintain their national standing, and others on the upswing will remain competitive.

“Men’s basketball is what people notice; it’s what’s most visible,” Kallander said. “Success on the national level can be transformational. It’s a priority.”

Kallander wants to see Big South teams considered for at-large bids, and its automatic bids worth more than just 16th seeds. To ensure his conference’s coaches are recruiting on at least a level playing field with their rivals, COA had to be included.

While the COA stipend varies for each school based on the local cost of living, it’s expected that players on the men’s and women’s basketball teams will receive $2,000-$6,000 per school year.  With 13 athletes on each men’s roster and 15 on each women’s roster, that’s $60,000-$168,000 extra in each school’s athletic budget per school year. Of note, conference member Liberty will fund COA for all scholarship athletes.

“The fact that [Kallander] has asked every institution to make that [financial] commitment is exciting for us,” said Mike McGuire, Radford’s women’s basketball coach. “The downside is it’s more of a financial impact on the athletic department budget that each institution has to work through. It’s something we’ll work hard at. But the fact he wants to keep basketball at the top of the conference is great. I think basketball is going to continue to get better and advance, especially on the women’s side.”

So how are the schools going to fund this budget increase? It’s unclear, even to Charleston Southern men’s coach Barclay Radebaugh, the head of the coaches’ committee who lobbied for the conference adopt COA funding.

“That’s way above my pay grade,” Radebaugh said in a June phone call. “I have no idea on that one.”

Charleston Southern declined further comment when asked for details on how it would pay for the COA measure.

Jaida Williams, the women’s coach at Coastal Carolina, is thrilled to be able to offer the stipend to her current players and new recruits, but she’s also not certain how the expense is being funded, saying she trusts the school to find a way.

“We do distribute funds to the schools,” Kallander said. “But it’s up to each institution how they will fund [COA]. The intent is not to take away from anything. How each institution funds it will be up to them, the goal is not to harm the experience of any other student athlete.”

So baseball players at Coastal Carolina and women’s soccer players at Liberty don’t have to worry about a lesser experience, but one has to wonder why the conference and its schools don’t have a clearer plan on how to support a six-figure budget increase.

In late July the NCAA announced it will allocate almost $19 million to the 350 Division I schools, partly to cover cost of attendance. That’s about $55,000 per school, according to a USA Today report, though disbursements won’t begin until June 2016. The money will help schools cover a good percentage of their new fiscal responsibility, and its likely increased student activity fees and higher ticket prices may be used to cover the rest.

Outside of the Big South, other similar-sized conferences have announced plans: The Atlantic-10 will cover COA for men’s and women’s basketball, while Virginia Commonwealth will fund all its scholarship athletes.  In the Colonial Athletic Association, which includes Elon, Towson, William and Mary, James Madison and others that often schedule games with Big South schools, there’s more of a wait-and-see attitude. North Carolina-Wilmington has decided to wait until at least 2016 to make a decision, while Towson and College of Charleston are already providing funding for some sports.

Aside from financial concerns, the big question remaining surrounds on the impact of the funding on the court or playing field. For example, will a school with a $2,000 stipend suddenly win more prized recruits than as similar school without the financial incentive? And how quickly will better players bring postseason success?

“Anyone who makes investments understand the ROI takes time,” said Coastal Carolina’s Williams, who has been asked about COA while recruiting this summer. “It’s going to take a couple years. We’ve got their attention. Now we need to get them to be committed. The more we can invest in these young women, the more you’ll see the ROI come out. I would look out across three, four, maybe five years for us to get there. It takes time.”

But in the short run, athletes like Coastal Carolina twin sisters Nicole and Stephanie Isaacs will definitely take advantage of the extra cash.

“The food money is going to be great. Because last year, we were always short,” Stephanie Isaacs said. “[We get taken care of] but it’s nice for us to have extra money for food, because we all like to eat.”

Above: ASN illustration by David Buitrago

Dan Friedell

Dan Friedell is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C.