In August, NCAA legislation takes effect that provides added financial assistance for Division I student-athletes.
Those receiving a full scholarship — which covers tuition, textbooks and room and board — are eligible for funds to cover their remaining cost of attendance.
That cost-of-attendance figure, which is calculated using a government formula and has always been available to regular college students, was prohibited for student-athletes.
At issue is the fact the rule would allow the schools that have the money to pay it while other schools dealing with budget concerns are at a potential disadvantage because of their inability to provide the funds.
University of Maine director of athletics Karlton Creech called the development “a controversy in college athletics.”
The cost-of-attendance figure varies from institution to institution. It is calculated by taking the total cost to attend a college and subtracting the amount covered by an athletics scholarship. It could be several thousand dollars, such as at the University of Tennessee, which tops the list at $5,666 per athlete.
Universities may disburse the money in a lump sum, and there are no restrictions as to how student-athletes may spend it.
“The schools that are doing it — the way most of them are managing it is that they’re just handing the kid a check at the beginning of the year,” Creech said.
At UMaine, the calculated cost-of-attendance number after scholarship expenses is $2,400. It is unlikely the athletic department would be able to provide those funds any time soon.
Creech estimated that if about 200 of UMaine’s 400 athletes are receiving some form of scholarship, it would cost the department an estimated $480,000 for 2015-2016.
“There’s no way, right now, that I have a way of affording that for everybody,” he said.
Creech said the possible ramifications of the rule were hot topics during recent annual meetings of the Hockey East Association, the America East Conference and the Colonial Athletic Association, in which UMaine competes.
“Right now, everybody’s looking at, what does this mean for our institution?” Creech said. “I think for most people at our level, we’re taking a wait-and-see approach.”
The NCAA membership in January approved autonomy for what has come to be known as the “Big Five” conferences, headlined by the cost of attendance measure. The move gives members of the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big 12, Big Ten and Pacific 12 conferences the ability to make certain policy changes without the approval of the full NCAA membership.
Because the “Big Five” already are the schools reaping the benefits of football bowl game revenue and lucrative television deals, they can much more easily find money to pay cost of attendance.
Many Division I schools at the mid- and low-major levels, such as UMaine, are unlikely to be able to provide the optional payments. However, some of their league counterparts with greater resources may, gaining a recruiting advantage.
“It’s going to be a real interesting recruiting dynamic,” Creech said.
As UMaine evaluates the situation, all inquiries about cost of attendance are being directed to Creech, who has asked his coaches not to discuss it with the media.
The autonomy vote also opens the door for other Division I schools and leagues to enact any policy developed by the “Big Five.” Cost of attendance is the first to impact the lower levels.
Creech said none of UMaine’s conference affiliates is likely to enact rules in an attempt to regulate the disbursal of the cost-of-attendance funds and instead will leave it to the discretion of each institution.
“There’s varying opinions even to the legality of that, could a league tell a school what to do, either way,” Creech said.
“With Colonial football and America East, how we came out of those meetings was the conference is not going to take a stance or dictate in any way,” Creech said.
Hockey East also intends to maintain a hands-off approach.
Boston College, one of UMaine’s peers in Hockey East, is a member of the ACC. It was the only school that voted against the cost-of-attendance proposal, yet, along with Notre Dame, plans to provide the money to its hockey players.
“At that level, if you don’t do it, you’ve put yourself at a significant competitive disadvantage,” Creech said.
That means a player being recruited by Notre Dame ($1,950) or BC ($1,400) will have added incentive to choose them over UMaine or other Hockey East programs.
Creech said the University of New Hampshire’s cost-of-attendance number is higher than UMaine’s, while the University at Albany has a lower figure.
CAA member Elon University was among the first in the country to formally announce it will not pay student-athletes the allowance.
Liberty University belongs to the Big South Conference and, like UMaine, competes in the Football Championship Subdivision. In April, it became the first FCS program to commit to providing full cost-of-attendance scholarships for athletes in all 20 sports.
The Atlantic 10 has taken a partial stand as a league, voting to pay only men’s and women’s basketball players. The Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, another mid-major, made the same mandate.
“There’s the whole, separate implementation issue of, are we doing it for everybody or just the basketball teams or the hockey teams,” Creech said.
UMaine does not have a formal policy on cost of attendance but is keeping a close eye on what happens with its various conference partners.
“We have been talking about it; it has been discussed with our coaches,” Creech, who pointed out COA funds were not budgeted at UMaine for the next academic year, said.
“We’ll really be paying attention to the national and conference landscape,” he added.
Even if UMaine somehow raised the estimated $440,000, “I’m not sure cost of attendance is the best way for me to spend that money,” Creech said. “We have so many needs and so many core areas that we need to invest in.”
UMaine athletes who need financial help for a family emergency or other unforeseen situation do have recourse. Creech said UMaine has some money in a special account funded by the NCAA Special Assistance Fund, which the organization distributes to its member schools.
The cost-of-attendance issue is expected to widen the gap between the haves and the have-nots in Division I athletics.
With “Big Five” schools already wielding their power by putting superior financial resources to work, lower-level Division I administrators are understandably wary about the future.
“This is the very first autonomy legislation to pass. I would imagine there are likely to be more and we don’t know what they’re going to be,” Creech said. “It’s certainly a concern for me moving forward.”