Attending College Sports and Its Cost

Anelle Valdes
Anelle Valdes

The start of a new school year ushers in a new financial reality for college athletic departments and, with it, questions about the hot new statistic in college sports: cost of attendance, or COA. Schools use cost of attendance to determine a student’s need for financial aid, and federal law dictates the types of expenses that can be taken into account when a financial aid department determines its COA figure for the academic year. Athletic departments have traditionally provided grants-in-aid to cover a majority of COA components — tuition, books, room and board — but NCAA rules have prohibited them from covering travel/transportation and personal and miscellaneous expenses.

SEC programs like Tennessee and Georgia will have to submit methodology for determining cost of miscellaneous expenses in their cost of attendance figures. Comments from Georgia coach Mark Richt have drawn attention to the potential for manipulating the formulas.

In January, however, the power five conferences — the ACC, Big 12, Big Ten, Pac-12 and SEC — granted the ability to offer student athletes stipends to cover the full cost of attendance, and the other Division I football conferences followed suit.

And that’s where the questions come in. The methods that financial aid offices use to determine figures for travel and personal expenses differ from school to school. Different methods mean some schools offer larger stipends than others, creating a new point of differentiation in the hypercompetitive world of college athletics recruiting.

The change sparked a debate about whether the system could be manipulated to provide higher COAs, and the accompanying recruiting advantage, for some schools. Once COA figures for the 2015-16 academic year became public, many wondered, for example, how the amount of the stipend covering transportation and personal expenses for the University of Tennessee in Knoxville, which is $5,666, could be so much higher than the $1,580 stipend at the University of Southern California in notoriously expensive Los Angeles.

Federal rules require COA to be calculated and listed every year, but there’s no requirement that adjustments be made in each category. School financial aid departments generally use student surveys, the Consumer Price Index, or a combination of the two to determine the cost of the travel and personal expenses components.

Susan Fischer, director of University of Wisconsin’s Office of Student Financial Services, said her office adjusts UW’s COA figure annually. It uses student surveys to determine things like the average amount a student spends on cellphone bills.

In addition to the surveys, the financial aid office does its own research. For example, it calls local apartment complexes to get the latest rent figures. It also prices out the cost of two trips home a year for students, both in-state and out-of-state, based on gas, bus and airline fares.

“Madison is not cheap to fly in and out of,” Fischer said. Wisconsin’s travel budget this year is $1,030 for in-state students and $1,630 for out-of-state students. (Article by Kristi Dosh, Sports Business Daily)

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