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Making allowances: Big 4 adjusting to cost-of-attendance movement

A lot of Big 4 student-athletes on scholarship are going to have a little extra money in their pockets for pizza on Saturday night or gas money to go home on a long weekend starting this fall.

And Big 4 athletic directors are going to have to do extra budgetary belt-tightening as a result.

A new “cost of attendance” rule, passed by the wealthiest Division I colleges in January, allows for student-athletes who are on scholarship to get extra cash – roughly between $2,000 to $4,000 each during the school year.

An athletic scholarship normally covers tuition, fees, books, and room and board. Of course, that’s not the full cost of going to college. Students have plenty of unavoidable expenses, for everything from extra food to gas to school supplies to travel to and from their hometown. The new rule provides for some of that spending money.

“It sounds great to me,” said UB men’s basketball player Rodell Wigginton. “Basically we’re on call when the coaches call. So even if we had a job, we’d end up losing it anyway, because we have to be available. Getting some extra money is a good thing.”

The rule has been discussed for decades, and the NCAA has faced multiple lawsuits over the value of athletic grants. The huge television dollars generated by college sports has turned up the pressure on administrators to “trickle down” some of that cash to the student-athletes. The NCAA gets almost $1 billion a year in TV rights for its Division I basketball tournament alone.

So the “Power Five” leagues – the 65 schools in the Southeastern, Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12 and Pac-12 conferences – responded in January by mandating that their members provide full “cost-of-attendance” scholarships for all sports.

The big-time schools acted on their own. The rule is not mandated for the other conferences that play Division I sports. However, all the other schools have decided they need to keep up with the Alabamas of the world – at least in defining what constitutes a “full ride” for their most popular sports.

The University at Buffalo and the rest of the Mid-American Conference schools voted to follow suit with the Power Five schools for all scholarship athletes in all sports. That’s roughly 250 athletes at UB.

The other Big 4 schools – St. Bonaventure, Canisius and Niagara – are providing the full cost of attendance grants only for their men’s and women’s basketball players on full scholarship. That’s what their respective leagues – the Atlantic 10 and the Metro Atlantic Athletic conferences – have mandated. That covers about 28 scholarship athletes – 13 for men’s basketball and 15 for women’s basketball.

How much of a financial hit is it? It’s different for every school.

UB athletic director Danny White said it will cost his department about $400,000 for the coming year. It will cost Bona about $80,000, Canisius about $45,000, and Niagara will be in that range, too.

No one is begrudging student-athletes getting extra cash.

“I think it’s long overdue, to be honest with you,” St. Bonaventure Athletic Director Tim Kenney said. “While our student-athletes who are on full scholarship get the education part of it, they do not have the ability to do what normal students do at times, becuase they can’t really work. I think it’s important to be able to provide them with the full cost of attendance.”

“When I was a student athlete, I would have said where do I sign up?” said MAC Commissioner Jon Steinbrecher. “If they’re wise with it, it should go an incredible long way. If they’re not, then they’ll waste it on something. I hope it’s the former not the latter.”

Canisius AD Bill Maher thinks student-athletes deserve more support, but he would have applied the rule a little differently.

“From an overall standpoint, no I can’t say I’m in love with the cost of attendance,” Maher said. “I think the opportunity to have a full scholarship is something most college students would love. And there are significant opportunities as student-athletes for additional resources through the NCAA.

“I think this is just a little bit more than the model I wanted to support. I thought the best way to do this was to award cost of attendance based on financial need. For those students who really have the need, then absolutely let’s figure out a way to get them additional resources.”

UB football star Adam Redden, who just graduated, says he wasn’t desperate for extra spending money because he had a side job cutting hair in his free time. But he thinks student-athletes deserve on principle to have more expenses covered, even if they aren’t scraping for a few dollars on Saturday night.

“I do believe that athletes for all sports are worthy of getting some type of extra stipend for all of the use of athletes’ names and likenesses that takes place,” Redden said. “Products like video games use athletes’ names and images, and they don’t get paid for it. So it’s about time student-athletes get reimbursed for playing Division I sports.”

There are plenty of good reasons student-athletes need spending money.

“Some of it is to get food on their own when they want to, when the dining halls are closed, which happens more times than people understand,” Bona’s Kenney said. “At some campuses, it could be something like a parking pass. It’s not so much here at St. Bonaventure, but at other schools parking passes are expensive. If they’re in a dorm with other students who are going out on a Saturday night to go to a movie, maybe they don’t have the money. They can kind of get alienated at times.”

“I’ve heard people, not necessarily at Niagara, say that students will be able to send some of this money home,” said Niagara AD Simon Gray. “If you’re looking for the right reason to do this sort of thing, if there’s a student-athlete who can send some money home, that’s why we should be doing this.”

“Sometimes kids eat four times a day,” Canisius’ Maher said. “I don’t think it’s unreasonable to say let’s give them money to afford an additional meal when necessary.”

For UB, the $400,000 cost is only about 1.5 percent of its nearly $30 million annual athletic budget. But that doesn’t mean it’s insignificant.

“Every dollar in that budget is accounted for somewhere,” UB’s White said. “When you consider our fixed cost on an annual basis, we pay for all of our scholarships. So we’re turning around and spending something like $14 million to the campus for tuition, room and board and the dorms and the fees. Those aren’t ever going down. They only go up. And the personnel expenses are the second biggest number. So of that $30 million, a lot of it is accounted for before we even schedule games.”

Ditto for the other schools.

“There isn’t anybody in the MAAC who has extra money lying around,” Gray said. “Every dollar is stretched as thin as it can get. One nice thing is the NCAA is enabling funds that come from the NCAA to be used to pay this cost of attendance.”

The local schools say they’re going to use at least some of the money that comes in from the NCAA – revenue from the NCAA Basketball Tournament, for instance, that each conference divvies up – to cover the added costs.

“We have to figure it out on our own,” White said. “We’re not getting any increase in institutional support to make that happen. Our attendance numbers being up and our ticket sales being up, along with sponsorship and donations, these allow us to do something like this without having to ask the university for more money.”

“We are looking at a couple of sources, private funds or utilizing some of the money from the conference that comes in to offset it,” Kenney said. “It’ll be a combination. ... It won’t be on the back of the school.”

The total each athlete gets is based on a federally mandated cost of attendance figure that every college lists on its website for the entire student population. It’s different for in-state and out-of-state students, and for on-campus or off-campus students. A fair number of athletes stay off campus by the time they’re seniors.

UB’s total cost is on the low end for MAC schools. Steinbrecher estimates the average cost in the MAC will be about $750,000 a year.

White explains part of the reason why UB is on the low -cost end.

“We were already making investments above and beyond the minimum of what you have to do,” he said. “Under NCAA rules, you’re always allowed to put kids in nicer dorms and pay the cost of those dorms. Most schools don’t do that.

“We already were putting our kids in Greiner Hall and using the South Lake Village apartments, which are considerably more expensive than the basic dorm. We have invested in that because we feel like it helps us in recruiting.”

Everybody is a bit concerned that variations in cost-of-attendance payouts could be used in recruiting, even if it’s just a $1,000 difference on a scholarship that’s worth $45,000 a year.

Schools can’t arbitrarily jack up the cost of attendance because it affects all scholarship students on campus as well as loan calculations and other factors for the entire student body.

Nevertheless, history shows recruiters will leverage every possible advantage. In the SEC for instance, Georgia will pay out $1,720 per student and South Carolina will pay $5,666.

“I’m sure it’ll be used against schools,” Kenney said. “Am I concerned? No, because in the end as long as students are being taken care of, that’s the mission of the program.”

“There are a lot of variables, and you can get deep into the weeds really quickly on this,” White said.

None of that matters to the student-athlete who now can pay for a cheap flight home on semester break.