A new era in college sports arrived for the 2015-16 school year in the form of full cost of attendance, a stipend paid over and above the benefits of a scholarship. The amount of the stipend varies by school, ranging from about $2,000 to $5,000 extra going to each full scholarship athlete.
The cash flow was born of good intentions and guilt. Athletic departments padded budgets mostly through hefty media rights contracts but without a means to funnel the largess to athletes.
A solution? In January 2015, the wealthiest conferences voted to strengthen the value of a scholarship. Athletes pocketed tens of millions this school year, a perk that is now part of the student-athlete experience.
All schools in the power five conferences – the Big 12, Southeastern, Big Ten, Atlantic Coast and Pac-12 – provided full cost of attendance to athletes in all of their sports, at a total cost around $500,000 to $1.5 million per athletic department, seemingly a drop-in-the-bucket amount for the richest programs. In 2014, revenue in 25 programs in power conferences exceeded $95 million.
Athletes in power five conferences on partial scholarships received a percentage of a stipend.
“I would tell you that our student-athletes have benefited greatly,” said Kansas athletic director Sheahon Zenger, whose department paid out an additional $3,644 per full scholarship, which ranks seventh in the 10-team Big 12. “Their quality of life has been enhanced.”
But like many first-year endeavors, full cost of attendance experienced some growing pains. Some were expected. Schools outside the power five conferences are not connected to major media contracts and didn’t have the revenue to fully fund cost of attendance. Some passed on it completely in the first year. Others funded some sports but not all.
Full cost of attendance didn’t satisfy everybody. A few hundred dollars per month on top of a scholarship seemed like a small amount to some who help generate millions for their university.
“There’s tons of money out there and the ones who are actually doing the work that people are coming to see, they’re not being properly compensated for it,” said Ian Simon, a three-year football starter at Missouri. “I know we’re getting an education, but it’s not really free when you’re putting in 40 or 50 hours a week on your sport. There’s a lot that goes into that scholarship that’s not really free.”
But mostly, student-athletes interviewed said they enjoyed the additional income, and another Mizzou athlete, senior-to-be point guard Lindsey Cunningham, was hard-pressed to think of anything more the university could provide.
“From my view of the situation and all that’s taken care of for me — the way I’m treated, the way we travel, the way we eat, the clothes we’re given — I’m not sure what else they could do,” Cunningham said.
How the athletes spent the money
Athletes found different uses for the new income.
Several said they used the money for additional groceries, school supplies, gasoline and other expenses that previously came out of their own pockets.
Jayhawks softball player Chaley Brickey said she put some of her additional income to a nutrition upgrade.
“I was able to get better food, more healthy, is the correct way to put it,” Brickey said.
Others spoke of returning income to home.
“Pretty much since I’ve been here I’ve been doing that … able to help my mom and brother out a little bit more,” said Kansas basketball player Jamari Traylor, a senior last season. “But it was just a little more at the end. It definitely helps out.”
For Kansas State basketball player Brian Rohleder, who was awarded a scholarship for the first time his senior season, having his tuition, room and board, fees and books covered for the first time was huge. His scholarship covered those expenses.
Receiving additional revenue – full cost of attendance at K-State was valued at an additional $3,860 for resident athletes and $4,160 for nonresidents per year – was a bonus. Those figures rank sixth in the Big 12.
“The scholarship went a long way,” Rohleder said. “Especially when I was getting a little extra for living expenses and other things.”
Some schools offered additional perks that were allowed under new NCAA guidelines. This year, Nebraska’s athletes were provided a MacBook Air laptop computer.
Kansas State poured $1 million into meals for its athletes at the new training table at Snyder Family Stadium – unlimited meals and snacks were also part of the new NCAA measure – in addition to $1 million in cost of attendance checks. K-State athletic director John Currie said his department raised funds through increased donations from boosters and rising conference revenue. No jobs were sacrificed.
“Thanks to our contributors, we got the money to do this,” Currie said. “We now have $2 million a year going into the pockets and stomachs of our student-athletes than we did two years ago.
“When you talk about value and quality of experience for student-athletes and a fair deal, an additional $2 million is pretty good. That represents a portion of the enhanced revenue we have from television and other places being distributed back to the student-athlete.”
At Missouri, cost of attendance money was directly deposited into accounts set up by the athletic department. Full scholarship athletes received $4,290, which was divided into 10 payments of $429 and deposited each month starting in August. Mizzou’s stipend ranks seventh among the Southeastern Conference’s 13 public schools.
“Sitting my chair, I’ve heard nothing by positive comments in terms of how it helped,” Mizzou athletic director Mack Rhoades said.
The windfall came with instructions at Missouri, which held several seminars for student-athletes about fiscal responsibility, budgeting basics and banking in general, although some were surprised to see less than what they expected.
Full cost of attendance is part of the athletic scholarship and subject to a school’s scholarship rules. At Missouri, Simon and linebacker Kentrell Brothers said money was deducted from their cost of attendance stipend for a debt they owned to the student bookstore.
“That made me mad … because I didn’t know that was going to happen,” Simon said. “I just remember getting my check and wondering why it was smaller than some of my teammates. The first three months of the semester, I didn’t get any of that cost of attendance money.”
Missouri used cost of attendance money instead of room-and-board allowances or Pell grant income to settle student-athlete accounts.
“That was just a safety net for us and really the student-athlete,” Rhoades said. “Once you get a hold on your account, trying to register for classes and do all those things became difficult.”
Not every athlete is getting paid more
The income gap between power five programs and the others became even more pronounced in recent weeks with reports of revenue distributions. The Big 12 recently announced each school will receive $30.4 million in league-generated income, mostly contracts with television networks and bowl games and NCAA Tournament revenue. That’s a 20 percent increase over last year.
When cost of attendance passed last January 79-1 -- a vote of the 65 power five schools plus 15 student-athletes -- concerns about affordability arose from the conferences and schools without huge television contracts.
That left some schools easing into the stipend. Those outside the big-budget conferences had to choose — opt in and provide full cost of attendance for all or some teams or delay the implementation, whatever the budget allowed.
UMKC, a member of the non-football playing Western Athletic Conference with an athletic budget of about $13 million, only provided two international athletes full cost of attendance. The first UMKC teams, men’s and women’s basketball, will begin to receive the stipend in 2016-17 along with most other schools in the WAC. At UMKC, full cost of attendance is $4,044.
“For us, it’s a start,” UMKC athletic director Carla Wilson said. “And it’s tough when you have 16 sports and you have needs across the board. You want to help all of your programs.”
Wichita State, a member of the Missouri Valley Conference, provides cost of attendance for each of its 15 sports at a total cost of around $500,000, according to senior associate athletic director Becky Endicott. No other Valley school funded cost of attendance for all sports in 2015-16, but Wichita State doesn’t have a football team.
“That comes up with recruits – ‘Are you giving the full cost of attendance?’ ” Endicott said. “Even though it was a large expense for us, I think it was really good for our coaches’ recruiting. They can walk in and recruit against anybody.”
Fellow Valley school Missouri State awarded full cost of attendance to its men’s and women’s basketball players, at $4,034 per athlete, in 2015-16 but in no other sports. The Bears’ baseball and volleyball players will receive full cost of attendance in 2016-17 by using a combination of funding from the university and the NCAA, which this month distributed nearly $19 million to 350 Division I schools in equal shares of about $55,000 to help offset the new additional costs.
But it’s not enough for Missouri State to cover football and its 63 Football Championship Series-allowed football scholarships.
“It’s the elephant in the room at our level,” Missouri State athletic director Kyle Moats said.
That’s because if cost of attendance becomes available to the football team it has to become available to same number of athletes in women’s sports.
One school that completes with Missouri State in Missouri Valley Football Conference, is going that route. North Dakota State, winner of five straight NCAA Football Championship Subdivision championships, will provide cost of attendance for 16 sports in 2016-17 after not providing it for any sport in 2015-16.
Schools offering greater amounts of cost of attendance revenue based on how schools calculate that figure was a concern entering the first year of full cost of attendance. Tennessee was at the end high end of the distribution at $5,666 per year. Boston College, the lone dissenter in the vote citing the recruiting advantages, offered its athletes $1,400.
But schools outside the power conference have inequity issues even within their program. Scholarship basketball players get paid and track athletes don’t?
“Coaches in sports that don’t receive work just as hard, as many hours as those coaches who do,” Moats said. “So, yes, you can have a morale issue among coaches and athletes.
“The idea at our level is to help as many sports and student athletes as you can.”
The Eagle’s Jesse Newell, Kellis Robinett and Paul Suellentrop contributed to this report