While the start of August annually signifies the looming onset of both another academic year and college football season, a different sense of anticipation accompanied the beginning of this year’s summer swan song. After the near-unanimous passage at January’s NCAA Convention of Legislation that would supplement student-athlete scholarship amounts with additional Cost of Attendance (“COA”) funds, these increased disbursements went into effect for the first time at the start of this August’s academic year. The University of Louisville’s official release yesterday of its $5,364 annual “COA gap” – a figure that is among the highest in the nation and markedly above all its ACC peers – is a reminder that while the COA concept is a long overdue step forward in easing the financial burden of the student-athlete, it’s initial iteration is not a perfect remedy.
Specifically, at last January’s NCAA Convention, the Power Five conferences voted to amend the NCAA’s definition of a “full grant-in-aid,” allowing for a student-athlete’s athletic scholarship to include a COA element (and thus be for a larger amount than ever before). Whereas the definition of “full grant-in aid” had in the past only meant tuition, food, room/board, and books, this amended definition would include a miscellaneous expense element (the above-mentioned “COA gap”) that is intended to cover personal expenses such as transportation, clothing, laundry, cleaning, personal hygiene and grooming, recreation, use of a computer, and dependent care. What’s not provided for, however, is any type of uniform approach to calculating how this COA gap is tabulated across the various universities. Instead, the COA amount is decided by university financial aid offices, using federal regulations as a guide but seemingly otherwise lacking any consistent guidelines.
To be fair, multiple college football coaches and athletic directors – while conceding the COA decision was a step in the right direction – immediately recognized the potential dangers in the disparate dollar amounts that would eventually be at issue. Among Louisville’s conference mates, Clemson head football coach Dabo Swinney felt the “intent [of the new COA legislation] is good,” but termed the prospect that some schools could offer thousands more in COA allowances than others could “a nightmare.” ACC elder statesman Frank Beamer agreed in spirit, stating, “I think extra money or more money to our student-athletes is a proper way to go. But the way we’ve done it, where there could be tremendous difference in what we give as opposed to what another school gives, are able to give, we’ve never done anything like that in college football before. I’m disappointed.” And even Louisville head man Bobby Petrino, who would seemingly benefit the most from Louisville’s high COA gap in the nightmare scenario where this well-intentioned piece of legislation becomes the next arms race, counseled caution, saying, “I think they have a lot of work to do on the cost of attendance, because, obviously, you don’t want it to be an advantage for one school over the other. I’m not sure that’s fair throughout the country to have it be different at one school than the other.”
Which is why Louisville’s official announcement on Tuesday that it would provide an almost $5,400 annual COA likely raised some eyebrows amongst conference peers (though Louisville’s larger COA has been speculated about since an April report from the Chronicle of Higher Education first reported proposed specifics among all Power Five universities). Not only is this amount almost $1,500 more a year than the COA of the second-highest ACC member (Florida State, at just under $3,900 annually), it dwarfs the amounts offered by ACC schools located in major metropolitan areas such as Miami, Atlanta, and Boston. When there is an almost $4,000/year delta in COA between Louisville and Boston College, it’s apparent why the more cynical college football fans and administrators might point at this new non-regulated COA system as the latest vehicle for recruiting abuses (at a paltry $1,400/year, it’s also easy to see why Boston College was the only Power 5 school to vote against COA allowances).
All of this background is neither meant to cast aspersions on Louisville, nor its methodology in calculating the COA amount. I have no basis to conclude there is anything nefarious going on in Northern Kentucky and that’s not my intent. Quite the contrary, the press release Louisville published yesterday was the model of what a step-by-step walkthrough of the new COA process should be, though I would have liked a tad more transparency and specificity into how the final annual amount was created than just a “variety of data tied to our geographic region.” Rather, the size of Louisville’s annual COA simply made for a jarring outlier that is endemic of an issue that will affect all of college football in the coming years. Much like with the new College Football Playoff, the serious gnashing of teeth should be reserved until the sample size of this new program increases to something over “one year,” and I think the disparities within the COA amounts will tend to correct themselves in the coming years, as the quirks within the way each school calculates this amount become more apparent. But similar to the issues surrounding the College Football Playoff, transparency is the easiest way to allay most all concerns about how things are done, and some sort of transparency legislation regarding the COA issue would seem prudent in the coming years, assuming certain universities are reluctant to engage in an open dialogue on how these COA amounts are calculated.