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A Simple Solution to the Cost of Attendance Debate

Dan Wolken of USA Today:

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.

But there does appear to be one item of consensus:

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

The debate over how to calculate cost of attendance is another example of how the NCAA rulebook got to be how it is and why granting autonomy of any sort to the power conferences is unlikely to change it that much. Competitive equity concerns between Utah and Texas as just as likely to prevent agreement on some issues as the gap between Utah and SWAC schools with seven-figure budgets.

But there is a flat number which might appeal to almost everyone. It works across the board and is already received by many athletes. It should satisfy coaches, athletes, athletic directors, and plaintiffs in lawsuits against the NCAA. That number is $5,730.

$5,730 is the maximum value for a Pell Grant for the 2014–15 academic year. To get a full Pell Grant, a student’s expected family contribution (EFC) must be $0. As family contribution rises, the value of the Pell Grant award goes down. It phases out completely at around the value of a Pell Grant (in 2013–14 the smallest Pell Grant award was $605 and students with an EFC of $5,082 or more received no Pell Grant).

If the NCAA were to redefine the maximum athletic scholarship as the current full grant-in-aid (tuition, fees, room, board, and books) plus a stipend equal to a full Pell Grant award, it would cover almost all the basis. $5,730 is well above the average gap between cost of attendance and a full grant-in-aid for power conference institutions. It would be a flat number set by the federal government so no one institution could fudge the number. In equivalency sports, it would mean cutting up a larger number among scholarship athletes.

The NCAA also already allows athletes to receive their full Pell Grant even if it exceeds cost of attendance when combined with their athletic scholarship. This would simply extend that logic from the neediest athletes to include everyone.

In the event a school’s cost of attendance gap exceeds the value of a Pell Grant, the school could be permitted to pay some of those expenses, rather than simply provide cash. This will probably happen anyway, as the power conferences are likely to receive autonomy over all of Bylaw 16 (awards and benefits) to pass rules allowing schools to pay for things like travel to and from campus, optional course materials, laptops, school supplies, and parking passes.

This plan would cost more for some schools than an actual cost-of-attendance calculation would. But if athletes were not still allowed to receive a Pell Grant on top of a scholarship that includes a Pell-sized stipend, the Pell Grants athletes already receive could cover some of that cost. It would be most expensive for schools with lots of sports and relatively low numbers of Pell-eligible athletes. If that means some schools cannot afford it, even some power conference schools, then the same logic which is used to justify autonomy in the first place should apply to them.

Instead though, it looks like the power conferences will come up with their own cost of attendance formula which will be similar to but not exactly like the federal calculation. It may satisfy the legal challengers but it already sounds unlike to please even all 65 schools that have been agitating for it for years now. No wonder the Big Ten is already asking to pass this rule, which would apply to all of Division I, based on the approval of only 33 schools.

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