Michael Woods, Northwest Arkansas Democrat-Gazette

Administrators working through discrepancies in how to pay players

As athletic departments work to implement new cost of attendance procedures for the next academic year, they are struggling with how to pay additional funds to players who are not on full athletic scholarships.

As athletic departments work to implement new cost of attendance procedures for the next academic year, they are struggling with how to pay additional funds to players who are not on full athletic scholarships. 

To pay for cost of attendance, Arkansas - like many universities - will increase the value of its athletic grants-in-aid (or scholarships) beginning later this year. At Arkansas, athletic scholarships are funded through donations to the athletic department's private fundraising arm. At most other universities, athletic scholarships are paid for in part by student fees.

The grants-in-aid are valued at $18,464 for in-state students and qualifying students from surrounding states, according to numbers supplied by the university.

A full scholarship will now include expenses that meet the federal definition of “cost of attendance.” Now, in addition to tuition, fees, books and room and board, the scholarship will also include expenses such as academic-related supplies, transportation and other similar items. The value of those benefits can differ from campus to campus. - NCAA.org, Jan. 18, 2015

Grants-in-aid for out-of-state students are valued at $30,554. In addition to cost of attendance adjustments, the value of grants-in-aid could rise for tuition increases.

The university has set its cost of attendance at $4,602 above the current amount covered by full grants-in-aid. Athletes who participate in full grant-in-aid sports like football and basketball will receive that money incrementally, although how and how often they will be compensated has yet to be determined.

The question of how to pay athletes who participate in equivalency sports like baseball and track & field is more perplexing for administrators. Not only are equivalency sport athletes promised varying amounts of scholarship money each year, but the means by which they agree to their financial aid creates - for the time being - an open-ended question about how to proportionate their cost of attendance stipends.

The problem with sports like baseball is that an athlete might only be promised a certain dollar amount each year instead of an annual percentage of his academic costs covered, so long as that monetary amount totals at least 25 percent of costs covered by corresponding full grants-in-aid. 

Without a defined percentage of aid offered, athletic departments are unsure of how much cost of attendance to cover for athletes who are not on full scholarships. Many of those same athletes have to pay or take out loans for a portion of their tuition, unlike athletes who participate in full grant-in-aid sports.

The Chronicle of Higher Education reports some schools are leaving how to distribute the additional funds created by cost of attendance legislation to the discretion of coaches in the individual equivalency sports.

"We go back and forth about whether that's fair or not," said Jon Fagg, senior associate athletics director at the University of Arkansas. "I say on the one hand, no way that's fair. And let's not even talk about football because it could be a gymnast or a tennis player. They're going to get money in their pocket in a generic sense, whereas an equivalency athlete is not going to get a correspondingly amount of dollars….They would just get what they've always been getting. 

"On the other hand, I think most of our kids would say they knew what they were getting when they signed up here and weren't expecting it go up every year."

Fagg said the NCAA legislative body is actively working to ensure athletes in equivalency sports will be compensated some for cost of attendance. He said it will be a point of discussion at the Southeastern Conference Spring Meeting next month in Destin, Florida, where the league will likely adopt its own proposal to present to the NCAA.

"It's an issue because the intent of this was to give kids more money," Fagg said. "The coach isn't doing anything wrong because he told the player he would give them $10,000, as opposed to saying I'm going to give you 25 percent and you're going to stay at 25 percent of whatever the cost is. People are really struggling with that.

"This is my idea: I say stop talking about dollars and only award equivalency. If you currently are a half-scholarship, that would be my definer, not $10,000."

With a series of high-profile court cases questioning the legitimacy of NCAA rules on amateurism, the five largest conferences voted earlier this year to pay athletes a stipend to cover the gap between the value of an athletic scholarship and the full cost of attending a university. Less-funded athletic departments in other conferences are expected to follow suit.

Athletic grants-in-aid cover tuition, fees, housing, meals and textbook costs. Other common expenses for students include expensive class supplies, such as personal computers or graphing calculators, not covered by grants-in-aid. 

Because of the time requirements mandated by their individual sports, many athletes are also unable to hold a job that can pay for extracurricular activities such as eating meals off campus, purchasing goods from retailers or even paying for a trip home for the weekend. 

If Arkansas' estimate of $4,602 were distributed equally over the course of the university's nine-month academic calendar, students in full grant-in-aid sports would receive about $511 monthly to offset some of those expenses.

According to a survey of cost of attendance figures at 25 universities conducted by the Chronicle, Arkansas' cost of attendance estimate is less than Auburn and Mississippi State among Southeastern Conference members, but more than Alabama, Georgia, Ole Miss and Missouri. 

Although it isn't the intent, administrators are aware the figures will likely be used in recruiting high school athletes. 

"I hope it's not the reason they choose one school over another," Auburn athletics director Jay Jacobs said in an interview with the Chronicle

"I was here for everyone of our official visits, and neither a parent nor a student-athlete mentioned cost of attendance to me."

If athletic departments push their universities for higher cost of attendance estimates, they aren't likely to succeed. Universities are required by law to submit their cost of attendance to the federal government for review each year.

"This is not an athletic issue," Fagg said. "Arkansas has 26,000 students. Changing the cost of attendance affects all 26,000 students. What (adjusting the cost of attendance) does is potentially change the way they give other scholarships on campus. It alters the numbers of loans, of our perceived affordability to the general public, to a kid wanting to come to school here. So they're not apt to change something just because athletics wants them to."

Still, universities have leeway in determining their costs of attendance. According to the <em>Chronicle</em> survey, the figure in major metropolitan areas such as Atlanta were generally much less than more rural areas like Manhattan, Kansas.

Universities in southern college towns like Fayetteville; Auburn, Alabama; Starkville, Mississippi; and Oxford, Mississippi, listed estimates greater than the combined cost of attendance for Los Angeles universities Southern Cal and UCLA. 

The Chronicle reported USC's estimate is low because athletes often incur fewer expenses to travel home. A USC full grant-in-aid is also worth just under $66,000, more than triple the amount of most SEC universities surveyed.

"It's going to be interesting once these numbers become more widely distributed," Fagg said.

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