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Colleges debate closing money gap between aid, tuition

Kevin Gorman
| Thursday, June 9, 2011

When the Big Ten's Jim Delany touched on a topic from a brainstorming session involving NCAA president Mark Emmert and the six BCS conference commissioners, it sparked a conversation that captured the attention of the power brokers of college athletics.

Delany used his platform at the Big Ten meetings to voice support for increasing scholarship limits to the total cost of attendance — any expenses above tuition, room and board covered by a grant-in-aid — in an effort to reduce out-of-pocket costs for athletes.

"It was not about giving a stipend or pay-for-play or paying salaries," said Chad Hawley, Big Ten associate commissioner for compliance. "To be clear, there is no proposal that exists. If the day were to come, there is a lot of detail that would have to be talked about. All we've done to this point is to, hopefully, get the conversation started — and that's happened."

A 2009 study released in October by Ithaca College and the National College Players Association, a nonprofit organization that counts 14,000 current and former Division I athletes as members, highlighted the disparity between the costs covered by colleges and the total expenses of their athletes. Transportation costs, for example, are not covered. Neither is, as Delany noted, the expense of doing laundry.

Penn State had the second-highest shortfall in the Big Ten, at an average of $3,924 per student per year or $15,696 over four years. Pitt was fourth in the Big East at $2,896 per year or $11,584 over four years, and West Virginia was seventh ($1,782/$7,128).

"That's where the confusion lies," said NCPA president Ramogi Huma, who formed the organization in 1997 while playing football at UCLA. "For years, for decades, the NCAA and schools are hammering this term they call 'full scholarship.' Now, they're coming out and saying, 'Let's give everybody a full scholarship,' and people are confused. The average citizen has no idea that current scholarship setups aren't always full.

"If what they're talking about is actually adopted, that would be excellent. I don't think it would eliminate scandals, but it might alleviate some of the pressures for some players."

The timing of Delany's comments had some insiders curious about whether it was an attempt to draw attention away from the NCAA's investigation of the Ohio State football program. Regardless, it has caused commotion in college athletics, which already deals with the disparity between BCS and non-BCS programs, the haves and have-nots.

"It's a topic that's been up for a while, just below the radar screen," said Mid-American Conference commissioner Jon Steinbrecher, noting that late NCAA president Myles Brand supported the issue. "Jim Delany carries a lot of weight in our profession. He very much helps set the agenda. He helped put a laser-like focus on the issue."

The agenda shifted from cost of attendance to pay-for-play after South Carolina football coach Steve Spurrier suggested paying players $300 a game for expenses in a proposal also signed by six other SEC coaches: Alabama's Nick Saban, Florida's Will Muschamp, LSU's Les Miles, Mississippi's Houston Nutt, Mississippi State's Dan Mullen and Tennessee's Derek Dooley.

"No matter how it starts," Pitt athletic director Steve Pederson said, "it usually does end up back with a discussion of whether or not you should pay players."

The challenge for athletic directors is in how to cover those additional costs in their athletic budget when many schools already are operating in the red, not to mention that the majority of sports aren't fully funded.

"I think that's why this gets more complicated," Pederson said. "Sometimes, it sounds good and people say, 'Sure, we'd like to get them more money and help them out.' I find it hard to believe anybody would be opposed to that, but there's going to have to be a lot of discussion before you get very far. In theory, these things sound good. No matter what financial shape your athletic department is in, you're still talking about a lot of new money in an initiative like that. Everything keeps escalating.

"You have to think long and hard about where that money comes from."

Penn State athletic director Tim Curley declined comment.

Big East commissioner John Marinatto warned that "it's way too premature to talk about details" of covering cost of attendance, which he called "years away from becoming a proposal." Marinatto added that Pell Grants and the NCAA student-athlete assistance fund help cover travel costs in case of emergencies and that recent NCAA legislation allows universities to choose whether to cover medical expenses for their athletes.

"It certainly has the potential to be a critical issue," he said. "Anything like this is healthy to have the discussion because it is ongoing. I would hope it would be a way of simply helping student-athletes cover expenses. The abuses you hear about are not that widespread. They just seem to get a lot of attention."

Steinbrecher said he believes it's necessary to determine financial obligations and other details before considering whether covering cost of attendance will give certain schools or conferences an advantage.

"We've got spitball estimates," he said. "It depends on the cost-of-attendance figure — where you're probably talking about a $400,000 to $600,000 increase of costs (per school) — and from there, you figure out how to pay it. If you think you're solving some of the ills, you're not. I kind of expect a robust debate on this, but there's a long way to go."

They said it

A sampling of conference commissioners on the cost-of-attendance issue:

"Forty years ago, you had a scholarship plus $15 a month laundry money. Today, you have the same scholarship, but not the $15 laundry money. How do we get back more toward the collegiate model and a regulatory system that is based more on student-athlete welfare than it is on a level playing field, where everybody is about a cost issue and whether or not everybody can afford to do everybody else can do?"

Jim Delany, Big Ten

"I have long thought that we should resist the current limitations on athletic scholarships by expanding to the full cost of attendance. This is a student-welfare issue that deserves full consideration at both the conference and national levels. I look forward to that discussion."

Mike Slive, SEC

"Something has to give on this issue. Universities justify spending tens of millions of dollars on coaches' compensation, with a seemingly insatiable appetite for more growth. At the same time, a small fraction of that amount is spent on all scholarship for all student-athletes. Unless the student-athletes in the revenue-producing sports get more of the pie, the model will eventually break down. It seems it is only a matter of time."

Britton Banowsky, Conference USA

Additional Information:

Picking pockets

A 2009 study by the National College Players Association and Ithaca College showed shortfalls for each Football Bowl Subdivision conference between cost of attendance and the amount covered by grant-in-aid per student:

Conference: Largest disparity; Smallest disparity

ACC: Clemson, $4,704; Boston College, $1,150

Big 12: Colorado, $4,698; Texas A&M, $2,823

Big East: Cincinnati, $5,970; Syracuse, $1,492

Big Ten: Ohio State, $4,572; Michigan State, $1,708

C-USA: Memphis, $4,401; Tulane, $936

Mid-American: Miami (Ohio), $5,886; Central Michigan, $1,231

Mountain West: Utah, $5,886; TCU, $1,920

Pac-10: Arizona, $4,050; Southern Cal, $1,476

SEC: Tennessee, $5,310; Georgia, $1,464

Sun Belt: Florida International, $4,080; Florida Atlantic, $1,008

WAC: Idaho, $4,832; Hawaii, $1,674

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