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USA TODAY
Dan Wolken, @DanWolken, USA TODAY Sports

This October will mark the third anniversary of NCAA President Mark Emmert unveiling a proposal that would have allowed schools to give college athletes a stipend of up to $2,000 a year.

Yet even as the notion of enhancing athletic scholarships is now viewed as inevitable amid sweeping changes to the NCAA structure, the last 30 months of discussion have produced remarkably few details about what a so-called "full cost of attendance" benefit would look like or how much of a dent it would put into athletic department budgets.

"There are a number of financial implications about which we can't plan right now," Big 12 Commissioner Bob Bowlsby told USA TODAY Sports. "Is that uncomfortable? Yes it is. It's uncomfortable for (athletics directors). It's uncomfortable for us. But that's the environment in which we find ourselves."

Four of the 10 Football Bowl Subdivision conferences have gathered in Arizona this week for annual spring meetings, and the cost of attendance issue has had a dominant place in the deliberations for each league.

For schools in the Mountain West and the Mid-American Conference, which represent the lower half of the resource scale in FBS, adding full cost of attendance to scholarships has the potential to reshape entire athletic departments and test the willingness of those schools to compete at the highest level.

For the Big 12 and Pac-12, where operating budgets range from $44 million (Utah) all the way up to $163 million (Texas), it promises to be a new and significant line item that could force priorities to shift.

The question for all these schools, however, is to what degree adding full cost of attendance will impact them.

"Obviously we have to look at every other budget process and make adjustments to make it work -- cost cutting or increase revenue, one of the two," Baylor athletics director Ian McCaw said. "We're trying to figure out what the variables are we should factor in and maybe work backward from there."

The reason athletics directors are still in a guessing game, even after such a prolonged discussion about the stipend/cost of attendance issue, is that the definitions involved are highly variable and extremely delicate relative to the current wave of lawsuits being pursued against the NCAA and its members.

The notion that the NCAA will adopt a flat stipend such as the $2,000 figure Emmert proposed seems unlikely, as it could be interpreted as an artificial cap on scholarship value, which is the subject of two lawsuits against the five power conferences.

Pac-12 Commissioner Larry Scott confirmed the current focus of those five leagues is a scholarship that covers the full cost of attendance rather than a stipend.

"I think at some stage we'll plan to have financial aid officers and athletics administrators representing the 65 schools together discussing a common approach of how to go about it," Scott said.

But that's also where the complications come in.

Each university publishes full cost of attendance numbers based on the miscellaneous expenses over and above what's normally included in the scholarship, and those numbers vary significantly for two reasons: Each school calculates them differently, and there are inherent cost-of-living factors that differ from one school to the next.

"When our kids move off-campus, they get a huge check because our on-campus room and board is expensive," Buffalo athletics director Danny White said. "Some other universities it could be $3,000 to 4,000 less. Nobody's talking about that discrepancy, and that's huge before you even start thinking about a stipend."

Ultimately, the five conferences that will drive the discussion in the NCAA's new autonomous structure -- the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Pac-12 and Big Ten -- will have to come up with some sort of standard formula about what's included in full cost of attendance. Each school will end up with a different number, but the way in which that number is calculated will be the same across the board. Otherwise, competitive equity concerns -- particularly, the notion that some schools will throw in extra elements as a recruiting incentive -- will come into play.

"When we say it's complicated, this is not bureaucracy grinding to a halt. It's a whole new mind-set that has to be thought through," Oklahoma athletics director Joe Castiglione said. "What federal laws out there guide some of these decisions? Are there tax implications? Say a student is pursuing their degree and part of it requires them to purchase certain things to make that happen. It's not tuition, room and board or books, but maybe it's a musical instrument. Maybe it's access to pay for some of their laboratory experience. Hopefully there can be some development of a definition of what would be included."

At minimum, athletics directors are expecting that, once implemented, the full cost of attendance will add $500,000 to $600,000 to their budgets, but the number could easily be larger than that depending on what's included in the final calculation.

Even among the five power conferences, that could create budget challenges. San Diego State athletics director Jim Sterk pointed out that several schools have taken their recent increases in television money and leveraged them to build facilities, creating debt service obligations that leave precious little room for error.

Meanwhile, a school such as Northern Illinois, whose $23.8million budget was 72% subsidized by student fees and other institutional support over the last fiscal year, will have to find a way to go along with whatever the "Power 5" decide.

"We've got to increase the widget sales. We've got to build a better mousetrap," Northern Illinois athletics director Sean Frazier said. "If we want to be competitive, we've got to do what we've got to do. Our league, we've got good programs, and I think we're all concerned that we can't miss an opportunity to be a part of the conversation. Now we know who we are. We're not going to sit here thinking we're going to put our recruiting budgets against Michigan, Notre Dame and Alabama, but we put a quality brand of football out there, and we have to maintain that."

Despite the stops and starts and seemingly endless discourse since Emmert's stipend proposal was shot down early in 2012, it appears things might move quickly if the new NCAA structure is approved in August. Scott said he expected "a very intensive process" over the following four months that would culminate with a cost of attendance proposal for the Power 5 to vote on in January and implement for the 2015-16 academic year.

On the other hand, each conference is still in the early stages of ferreting out the details for what it thinks full cost of attendance should include.

"There are a lot of different ways to do it," Scott said. "I think if we get the autonomy that we've asked for, the commissioners will be setting out a very aggressive timetable to put proposals out there."

 

May 8, 2014

 

 
 

 

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