Cost of attendance legislation – which allows athletes to receive scholarships that now cover the federally defined cost of attending school rather than just tuition, room and board – was approved last January and will now be available to full scholarship athletes.
At Ohio State, that means each football and men’s basketball athlete, for example, will receive in excess of $2,600 more than a year ago to cover the incidental expenses of a college education. That’s money that will be in their pockets that simply didn’t exist a year ago.
“Kids are getting more money in their pocket,” Ohio State athletics director Gene Smith recently told BSB. “Freshmen won’t know a difference, but the returning athletes will know the difference. I think it’s going to work fine.”
With college athletics increasingly under attack for its treatment of athletes, the new money was one of the first changes in favor of student-athlete welfare enacted after a new NCAA governance structure was adopted last year. It allows the Power Five conferences including the Big Ten, which make the most money, to push through reforms suited to returning some of the power back to the athletes on the field.
Smith sees it as a change for the good, even as rising costs in college athletics threaten to trim down the finite number of athletics programs actually making money each year. Ohio State is one of those and budgeted more than $1.6 million to pay for cost of attendance in its first year.
“We did an estimate a couple of years ago when we saw this thing possibly coming,” he said. “We did an estimate based upon our scholarships at the time and what our normal split is out-of-state vs. in-state, and that’s how we came up with the $1.65 million that we have in place this fall. We’re not as challenged as many of the other schools are nationally. I think that’s going to a challenge across the country, but it’s the right thing to do.
“There’s some nuance in management of that based up on where the whether the athlete is getting a Pell Grant, whether they’re getting some academic money. There are a whole lot of things you have to manage around that with the financial aid office, but it’s a good thing.”
Another sticking point comes from the fact that the federal cost of attendance number is determined by each school and was originally just a guidepost number rather than the kind of thing that was supposed to used to drive policy, which could lead to an uneven playing field.
Ohio State’s number is in the middle of the pack in the Big Ten, outpacing rivals Michigan ($2,054 in 2014-15 per CollegeData.com), and Michigan State ($1,872) but lagging well behind Penn State ($4,788), where head coach James Franklin has said he wouldn’t be afraid to use it the difference as a recruiting tool.
“I think we’re going to have to watch that down the road,” he said. “I just read something about the SEC and Auburn is at like $5,600 and Alabama is like us at $2,000-something. So I think you are going to see that down the road. I don’t know if it’s going to have the impact right away. I think people are still trying to figure that out. You can’t go out and say, ‘Hey kids, you’re going to get this amount of money,’ because it really depends on some things about them. I think eventually coaches will learn that and it could become a recruiting advantage, but for us you have other assets. You look at Columbus and the Fortune 500 companies that we have, and we work with student-athletes to ultimately help them get jobs and things of that nature. A lot of schools don’t do what we do.
“Well make sure our coaches have their recruiting toolbox to combat that when they’re in that situation, allow them to show somebody that, ‘OK, right, you may get another $450 at that school, but look at what we have here in Columbus, Ohio, and what we do for you.’ Kids are impressionable, but you have to figure out how to use those assets and sell the parents. Eventually maybe a couple of years from now once people really understand it, the money might become a factor. I don’t think it’s going to become a factor initially because people don’t really understand it yet.”
A recent story by the Toledo Blade quoted a national financial aid administrator as reporting some coaches having concern about their schools’ low number when it comes to cost of attendance. Whether there will be more reform to sync the numbers at schools in the same conferences or across all of the Power Five remains to be seen.
In the meantime, Smith said Ohio State will continue to ask recruits to look at the school’s success both on the field and in preparing athletes for life after athletics. The athletics department has established internship and study abroad programs in recent years and also runs a series of career fairs for athletes, all of which have helped the department put together a life-after-school success rate that outpaces the general university population.
“To me, that’s the stuff that we’re all about,” Smith said. “We ended up with about 220 graduates (this year), and there were 44 that had not gotten jobs or doing postgraduate work and that was a few weeks ago. Hopefully by now our numbers have shrunk. That includes guys who are going pro and a lot are going to get their master’s, which is a big part of what we do is making sure they apply for postgraduate scholarship money. It’s working. It’s great.”