Posted by: SWL | September 17, 2011

NCAA Considers Full Cost of Attendance Scholarships

There’s a little more excitement at my house at this time of year – it’s football season! My spouse and I each have a favorite NFL team, and we really enjoy college football. We’ve followed the teams of our alma maters since graduation. It was great to watch my Arizona State Sun Devils appear in the Rose Bowl twice over the years.

Then it was time for the kids to go to college. Our oldest bounced through three Western Athletic Conference schools in pursuit of a degree, so it was hard to build any team loyalty. But when the youngest settled in at the University of Nevada, Reno (UNR), we followed the sports teams on the news and even attended a couple of football games.

But nothing in our football experience prepared us for the University of Florida where our youngest child went to graduate school.

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium

The Swamp at the University of Florida

Ben Hill Griffin Stadium – aka The Swamp – is huge. Gatorade was invented there. Gainesville residents paint their cars, and occasionally their houses, orange and blue! Our daughter attended Florida during the most recent national championship seasons (basketball as well as football), which just added to the fervor of the Gator Nation.

There are many strong teams in the Southeastern Conference and in the southeastern US in general. That region is the Bible Belt of Football as well as religion. Those schools spend much, much more on their football programs than smaller schools. But they also receive far more in television revenue. Inequities in athletic department budgets would need to be addressed if the NCAA board goes forward with a plan to require colleges to offer “full-cost-of-attendance” (COA) scholarships for student athletes.

A typical “full ride” scholarship for college athletes includes tuition, room and board. Full cost of attendance could include personal transportation, books, a yearly share of computer equipment, even laundry money. Currently each school calculates the cost of attendance differently. Without stringent rules, schools could increase the expense list, providing higher COA scholarships to give them an edge in recruiting. I found an excellent analysis of various aspects of COA by Kristi Dosh. (Click on the categories Scholarships and Pay for Play.)

An article in the Reno Gazette-Journal* featured football players who said they ended up eating ramen noodles at the end of each month. As I read the article, I felt sympathy for the athletes. But then I began to think about my own children’s college expenses. The youngest had good scholarships for her undergrad work at UNR, but the family still paid part of her room and board. My oldest daughter declared herself emancipated and received federal aid, but that did not cover all her living expenses either.

College athletes already receive a better deal than most non-athletes. According to Ms. Dosh, in addition to their scholarships, student athletes receive top-notch physical conditioning, some food and hydration at practices, academic help and counseling. And they do not graduate with student loans as many other students do. It may be that some athletes bring on difficulties themselves. If they live on campus and have a full meal plan, they can eat as much as they want every day of every month. If they make the choice to not take advantage of meal plans, they have little to complain about when they are hungry at the end of the month. Learning to make wise choices and accept responsibility for your mistakes are important parts of becoming an adult.

Some argue that athletes deserve COA scholarships because sports bring money to the schools. But NBC Sports reports that only 22 athletic departments (about 10%) in Division 1A schools bring in more revenue than they expend on their programs. The rest rely on tuition and fees to pay coaches’ huge salaries, and for equipment and travel. There are usually donations from individuals and corporations to help offset expenses. The disparity is obvious at several schools where there are more coaches in some sports than professors in certain academic departments.**

Unfortunately, US colleges cannot provide a free education to all students who want to attend. While sports are great fun and entertainment for students, their parents and other fans, it should not overshadow academics. Participation in sports has been shown to be good for health and teach leadership and other skills that are useful off the playing field. But few student athletes will go on to professional sports, so their education will be worth more in the long run than their time on the team.

As the NCAA looks at scholarships, maybe it is time to look at other financial aspects of college sports. Ticket prices at certain schools rival professional sports. Head coach salaries at the larger schools are in the millions. Perhaps the NCAA should place a cap on those salaries, allowing schools to use those funds to provide COA scholarships. Surely the NCAA could craft rules to take care of student athletes, pay coaches fair (but not exorbitant) salaries and be sure student athletes graduate while placing greater emphasis (and funding) on academic programs. As much as I enjoy a good football game (such as today’s University of Florida win over Tennessee), I value education more.

The US college and university system is much different from higher education in the rest of the world. Given US problems with unemployment and corporations sending jobs overseas, it may be time to look at the allocation of resources in higher education the same way we are debating how to best pay for K-12 education.

* Aug. 14, 2011, “College athletics: Student-athletes, administrators weigh benefits of full-cost-of-attendance model”, sports section-page 1
** “Reader’s Digest”, Sept. 2011, “10 Things Every Parent Should Know About College” by Michelle Crouch, page 142.

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