Beginning this fall, football players, basketball players and some other athletes at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln are slated to receive an estimated $3,600 allowance for personal expenses — the result of landmark legislation that passed over the weekend during the NCAA’s convention.
In response to criticism that big schools were financially exploiting athletes, members of the five major football-playing conferences moved to redefine athletic scholarships beyond the traditional room, board, books and fees. Now they also can include incidental costs, like transportation, personal items and other typical out-of-pocket expenses.
UNL Chancellor Harvey Perlman said Monday that Nebraska plans to implement the so-called “full cost of attendance” change starting with the 2015-16 school year, at a total estimated cost to the athletic department of just under $1 million a year.
“We’ve been supportive of cost of attendance for years, so we will implement it,” Perlman said.
A year ago, Perlman had expressed the same frustration shared by many campus leaders at the so-called power conference schools: They were being beaten up by critics for generating millions of dollars from football and men’s basketball. But at the same time, they couldn’t provide any additional aid to the athletes in those sports because smaller schools kept voting it down.
In August, however, the NCAA gave schools in the power five conferences — the Big Ten, Big 12, Atlantic Coast Conference, Southeastern Conference and Pac-12 — new autonomy to set their own rules in certain areas. On Saturday, the schools used that power to authorize additional cash aid, up to a formula-driven full cost of attending college.
Now schools need to decide if and how they will implement the new authority. And it won’t be just schools in the power conferences faced with the decision. All Division I institutions are allowed to take part, in some or all of their sports.
It’s quite possible that officials at Creighton University or the University of Nebraska at Omaha will decide they need to follow suit to remain competitive with the power conferences in certain sports.
Creighton Athletic Director Bruce Rasmussen has said that falling behind the other major schools is not an option for Creighton or its fellow schools in the Big East Conference, who are focused on making the Big East the best basketball league in the country.
“The Big East will do whatever the Big East has to do,’’ Rasmussen said last year. He could not be reached for comment Monday.
Similarly, UNO is part of arguably the nation’s top Division I hockey conference and is determined to compete at the highest level in that sport.
UNO Athletic Director Trev Alberts said Monday the school has no immediate plans to implement aid changes. But he said he would not be surprised if UNO one day increases aid beyond the traditional scholarship, depending on what rival schools do and the availability of resources.
“I think each individual institution will take advantage of the legislation as best they can to create a competitive advantage in those areas they deem a priority on campus,’’ Alberts said. “And for UNO, obviously, hockey is a huge priority.”
As schools decide what to do, the price tag will be a huge consideration. Most major college athletic departments are already heavily subsidized by tax dollars, university dollars or student fees. Giving additional aid to athletes would only increase those financial pressures.
“Each Big East school will have to decide what you can afford to do and what you can’t,” Rasmussen said last year. “But men’s and women’s basketball in the Big East will be taken care of.”
Cost is not a major stumbling block at NU. Providing full cost of attendance aid in all sports is estimated at $925,000 annually — not prohibitive for a school that generates big dollars from football and which has no direct state or university subsidies in its $100 million-plus athletic budget.
Still, not every athlete on NU’s campus would receive the full allowance.
Athletes in sports like football, men’s and women’s basketball and volleyball — where athletes are awarded full scholarships — would each receive the additional $3,600, said John Jentz, the athletic department’s chief financial officer.
But in most of the school’s two dozen sports, scholarship dollars are split up by coaches among multiple athletes as partial aid. For example, in baseball, by NCAA rules, schools can offer 11.7 scholarships divided among the team.
While the governing rules for the new change are still being defined, Jentz said his understanding is that schools will be able to use the cost of attendance dollars to increase the pool of aid available for distribution in those partial-scholarship sports.
Another issue for schools to consider is Title IX. While theoretically schools can pick and choose the sports to which they will give the full cost of attendance, the federal law barring gender discrimination will not allow schools to do it in men’s sports to the exclusion of women.
“Our expectation is to go across the board and eliminate that issue,’’ Jentz said. “But it will be a real pressure point for those who won’t be able to afford to do it for everybody.’’
Alberts also sees a potential pitfall in the differing amounts of additional aid schools will be able to offer. The average nationally is about $2,500, but it’s determined separately for each school based on federal guidelines.
While the full cost of attendance stipend at UNO has been calculated at about $3,000, Alberts said he’s seen figures for some schools in UNO’s conference at nearly $10,000.
“A lot of this is still evolving,” he said.
Indeed, the cost of attendance change is the first of many that figure to reshape the college sports landscape for years to come.
The power schools last weekend also approved legislation preventing coaches from choosing not to renew an athlete’s scholarship for athletic-performance issues.
Perlman said he was most excited by another resolution passed in which the schools pledged to work over the next two years on a number of additional issues. Among them would be liberalizing transfer rules, regulating the time demands that can be imposed on athletes to balance the rigors of athletics with academics, and allowing athletes to take time away to study abroad or take part in an internship. After all, the vast majority of athletes, as NCAA commercials so often point out, go on to careers outside of pro sports.
Perlman sees the changes as all about “modernizing the student-athlete experience for the 21st century.”
“I think there was a fair amount of consensus achieved,’’ he said, “about how to move the ball forward.’’
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