Cost of attendance results: The chase to pay college players

Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) schools are budgeting more than $73 million for new cost of attendance expenses that range from under $1,000 per scholarship to more than $6,000, according to a CBS Sports survey examining the costs of the additional money now allowed under NCAA rules.

Eighty-two of the 129 FBS schools surveyed responded with their new cost of attendance (COA) budget, resulting in a cumulative average of approximately $900,000 per school. In reality, more schools will provide COA but they are either private universities and not obligated to publicly share information, or they said they have not finalized their plans.

The survey showed a divide between the commitment from schools in Power Five conferences (SEC, ACC, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12) and those in the Group of Five (Conference USA, MAC, Mountain West, AAC, Sun Belt). It’s believed that every Power Five school will provide COA. At least 13 Group of Five schools said they are not offering the new stipend this year.

After years of discussion about COA, the five wealthiest conferences passed a rule in January allowing an athletic scholarship to include each schools’ calculations under federal guidelines for the full cost of attending college. COA, which gets set by financial aid offices and was never intended to apply to competitive purposes in athletics, allows schools to pay for athletes’ miscellaneous personal expenses and transportation allowance.

Many coaches and administrators have been calling to establish COA for years. Yet now that it’s here and coupled with ongoing litigation that currently prevents the NCAA from setting a cap on COA, there is some concern the new money could impact recruiting. There are also questions of whether COA figures are getting increased due to athletics.

The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators conducted a survey last winter after the NCAA rule change that showed 25 percent of sampled financial aid officers had received pressure from outside influences at the university. Of that 25 percent, a majority said the pressure had come from the athletics department.

That doesn’t mean financial aid officers adjusted figures due to athletic pressure. But as Big 12 commissioner Bob Bowlsby said, “There is some indication that the numbers have already crept (up). The office of financial aid on every campus is the place where these decisions are supposed to be made. There isn’t supposed to be any athletics input into it. But I guess I’d be naive if I didn’t think that there had been lots of conversations and perhaps there was some back and forth on that.”

COA varies by school and can depend on how financial aid offices determine figures, such as using student surveys to create average miscellaneous and travel expense costs. The CBS Sports survey found these are the highest average numbers for new cost per scholarship from schools that are providing at least some COA money:

Highest FBS Cost of Attendance Figures
School Highest Avg. New Cost / Scholarship Estimated New Costs State
Cincinnati $6,082 $600,000 Ohio
Florida Atlantic* $6,060 $300,000^ Florida
Florida State* $6,018 $2,000,000 Florida
UCLA* $5,941 $1,500,000 California
Tennessee $5,666 $1,400,000 Tennessee
Stanford* $5,610 Declined to provide California
Auburn $5,586 $2,100,000 Alabama
South Alabama $5,470 $850,000 Alabama
Alabama* $5,386 Did not provide Alabama
Louisville $5,364 $1,300,000 Kentucky

Cincinnati has the highest cost of attendance in the nation for 2015-16. (USATSI)
Cincinnati has the highest cost of attendance in the nation for 2015-16. (USATSI)

Findings from the COA survey

The SEC has eight schools whose highest average new scholarship amount is at least $4,000 -- more than any other conference. The AAC, Big 12 and Sun Belt have six schools each at that amount, followed by the Big Ten (five); ACC, C-USA and Mountain West (three each); Pac-12 (two); and MAC (one).

“There are some SEC schools that have a really high cost of attendance even though they’re in a relatively small town, so I’d like to see the formula that they’re coming up with,” said Arizona coach Rich Rodriguez, whose school has one of the lowest COA amounts ($1,602) in the FBS. The SEC passed a rule requiring its schools to annually inform the conference office how they determine the value of “other expenses” and any individualized COA variances provided to athletes.

Cost of attendance is not calculated by “we give you all kind of money because you live in Palo Alto, L.A. or Dallas,” Stanford coach David Shaw said. “It’s a little more complicated, which is why some of the metropolitan areas aren't as high as some of us thought they would be and some of the smaller-town areas are bigger because they factor in travel, driving to an airport and what goes into being at a school.”

SEC schools on average are budgeting $1.24 million in new COA costs. For most SEC schools, that equates to about 1 percent or less of their athletic budget. The anticipated costs per school in the other Power Five conferences: Big Ten -- $1.16 million, ACC -- $1.07 million, Big 12 -- $921,000, Pac-12 -- $736,000.

Said Oregon coach Mark Helfrich, whose school’s COA ($2,382) is among the lowest in the FBS: “I’ve seen a few of the numbers. It’s an interesting number. The people that can control it, there are some ways you can manipulate the system. It will be another clear battle (in recruiting).”

Some traditional rivals within the same state have wide COA gaps. Florida State’s out-of-state COA is $6,018, while Florida is offering $3,830. Florida State is budgeting about $1 million more than Florida in new COA costs.

UCLA’s COA for off-campus students ($5,941) and on-campus ($5,242) far exceed fellow Los Angeles school USC, whose number as a private school is $1,580 and could reach $2,151 based on individualized cases. Private universities have an incentive to keep COA low to avoid sticker shock to students since their tuition cost tends to be very high. “I think (recruits) are going to start asking (about cost of attendance),” USC coach Steve Sarkisian said. “We’re probably not reaping the benefits of other schools if they go all the way to that threshold. But USC is a private school and they provide for all students, not just student-athletes.”

BYU’s COA exceeds Utah’s by about $1,000. “I guess if the discrepancy is big enough, it could be a competitive advantage or disadvantage,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said. “But if you’re talking a $40 or $50 difference a month, you hope you're recruiting athletes who see the big picture and understand that’s not what they’re going to base their decision on. Scholarship checks have always been different across the country.”

Ohio State, college football’s defending national champion, has the fourth-lowest COA in the Big Ten among public universities ($2,970). “It’s wrong, it’s wrong,” Ohio State coach Urban Meyer said of the varying numbers by school. “That needs to be fixed. Whoever came up with that ruling, it’s wrong. That needs to be a standardized (number).”

Penn State has one of the Big Ten’s highest COA figures at $4,700. “If that’s going to be the deciding factor (for a recruit), you give them the information and they do what they want with it,” Penn State coach James Franklin said. “It’s not like we can modify it or change it. I think what you’ll see is if it comes down to two schools and you’re behind in cost of attendance, then you’re selling all those other areas of why, long-term, you think your school will be the best decision.”

Defending men’s basketball champion Duke, which is a private university, declined to provide its COA data.

Athletic departments that are providing COA to partial-scholarship athletes have taken different approaches on how to calculate those numbers. Some equivalency-sport coaches are keeping it simple and saying, for example, that an athlete on a 50-percent scholarship gets 50 percent of COA. Others are stretching out the new money in order to add players onto a scholarship, not necessarily bumping up an existing athlete’s scholarship value. For instance, UCF said it’s letting coaches decide how to proportionally give COA to equivalency sports.

“That's not what the intent of the rule was, but that’s how it’s going to go,” Auburn athletic director Jay Jacobs said. “Some coaches are going to say what’s better for my student-athletes is to have more scholarship athletes and more players on aid and that’s helpful for my team.”

MAC commissioner Jon Steinbrecher said if too many coaches use COA to expand their roster sizes “then we’re going to need to tighten it up further because that would be a concern. I think most people went into this with the idea of paying by equivalency, but it’s not spelled out clearly.”

Boise State, which once adamantly opposed an NCAA rule allowing up to $2,000 for COA, is offering about $5,100 per new scholarship cost and budgeting $1.15 million in additional expenses. Boise State argued in 2011 that COA would create a divide between the haves and have-nots. The Broncos’ COA is higher than any in the Big Ten and Big 12 and exceeds nine SEC schools.

Appalachian State, Army, Bowling Green, Charlotte, East Carolina, Marshall, Miami (Ohio), Rice, Rutgers, Utah State and Wake Forest were the other current FBS schools that successfully helped to override the $2,000 cap. Some of the reasons had to do with Title IX concerns at the time. Today, all of the schools said they are providing at least some new scholarship money this year except for Appalachian State (not offering COA), Army (not applicable to service academies) and Rice (declined to provide data). Marshall, which in 2011 said it was not in position to fund additional costs associated with the miscellaneous expense, has budgeted $500,000 for COA.

Boston College, the only Power Five school to vote against COA last January, will hand out new scholarship money. BC said it’s providing $1,250 for miscellaneous expenses plus an unspecified travel allowance if the player is from outside New England. Partial-scholarship athletes on a percentage scholarship will receive the percentage of their dominator, and athletes on a dollar-figured scholarship will receive the dollar amount. Boston College declined to say how much money it’s budgeting.

North Carolina public universities have lower COA than in the past because student health insurance is no longer built into the full cost of attending those colleges. That means the COA is $1,600 less at East Carolina. NC State’s COA of $2,706 was the third lowest reported by ACC schools.

The Sun Belt and Conference USA have the most schools not offering COA this year (six in each conference). From C-USA: Louisiana Tech, Florida International, Old Dominion, UAB, UTSA and Western Kentucky. From the Sun Belt: Appalachian State, Georgia Southern, Georgia State, Idaho, New Mexico State and Texas State. It appears there's a haves vs. have-nots over COA within Group of Five conferences. For instance, while some rivals aren't offering any new money yet, C-USA’s Marshall and UTEP are each budgeting at least $500,000 in new COA costs, and the Sun Belt’s Arkansas State and South Alabama are providing more than $800,000.

Some Group of Five schools said they are phasing their COA plan in over multiple years. For example, East Carolina will provide football and men's and women’s basketball players with $4,025 extra this year and $2,025 to all remaining sports. The school said it will fully fund all programs in 2016-17, resulting in COA costs increasing from $720,000 to $970,000.

What’s next for cost of attendance?

The bottom line: New money is now coming into the hands of college athletes. Because of this, many more schools are providing financial education to athletes. Some are providing the money in monthly installments or over a period of several months.

“Some people on the team have bad situations and they can put that money to the side for their parents and a little money they keep for themselves so that’s a good thing,” Alabama linebacker Reggie Ragland said. “I’ll use it to buy food and pay bills. Might get some clothes and shirts.”

LSU offensive lineman Vadal Alexander said he might use COA money to pay for a couple months of his car loan, get some sneakers and buy his mom something nice. “Although we make a lot of money for LSU and the SEC, we’re getting something a lot of kids don’t have and that’s an opportunity to go to school for free and put ourselves on a platform to make a lot of money,” Alexander said. “I’m grateful for that, but I’m definitely not going to say no to more money.”

How COA impacts college sports on the field -- if it does at all -- remains to be seen. Teams have been on uneven playing fields for years in many ways, as evidenced by coaches' salaries, athletic department budgets, sports facilities, and staff sizes for academic assistance and NCAA compliance. Change in college sports, though, tends to cause fear and confusion. Depending on pending court cases and membership feedback, the NCAA’s handling of COA may evolve in the future. Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick, whose private university has one of the lowest COA figures in FBS, believes schools should provide recruits with disclosure statements explaining every element in a proposed scholarship.

“Like when you buy a car, there ought to be a simple, federally-mandated disclosure form that says here's what it is,” Swarbrick said. “One reason cost of attendance numbers are different is because figures embedded in other elements of the scholarship are different. You could have a different meal plan. If I only provided you 10 to 12 meals a week, your cost of attendance is higher. If you provide a 17-meal plan, it doesn't impact your cost of attendance.”

Bowlsby, the Big 12 commissioner, thinks that built-in buffers at universities will keep COA from dramatically rising in the future. COA impacts what types of grant programs a school is eligible for and what kinds of loans a student can receive. “I think over time … the bottom (COA figures) may come up and the top may either sit still or come down a little bit,” Bowlsby said.

Interest in COA is nothing new for financial aid offices. Clemson financial aid director Chuck Knepfle said he often gets complaints by students who want their loan eligibility to reflect their desire to live in a single room on campus. The difference now is the Clemson athletic department now is very interested in this number, too.

“If there’s one gatekeeper to put this on, I think financial aid directors are the right person,” Knepfle said. “From the day we start this job, we understand the ramifications of not following federal guidelines. If we do something wrong on our cost of attendance, we put our federal aid in jeopardy. That’s probably what folks in the NCAA thought by putting this on us.”

Steinbrecher, the MAC commissioner, said COA should not wildly fluctuate in the future. He hopes the purpose of the rule -- provide more money to athletes -- does not get lost in the arms race of recruiting.

“We have a few coaches out there who are spending a lot of time splitting the differences and I don’t really think that’s the purpose in this,” Steinbrecher said. “I’m really looking more from feedback from our students and what it means to them. Is this doing what we hoped it would do? Time will tell.”

CBS Sports Senior Writer

Jon Solomon is CBS Sports's national college football writer. A former Alabama resident, he now lives in Maryland and also writes extensively on NCAA topics. Jon previously worked at The Birmingham News,... Full Bio

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