Coaches, ADs debate how to handle cost of attendance


AMELIA ISLAND, Fla. – Boston College athletic director Brad Bates is a modern day Nostradamus. He denies it, of course, but there is only one man who could point a finger and shout, “Told you so!” on the cost of attendance issue.

His words back in January – when BC was the only school to vote against cost-of-attendance legislation – do all the talking. He predicted exactly what has played out over the last several months and during conversations at the ACC spring meetings, as coaches have openly wondered how the inherent inequities will affect recruiting and athletic directors have wondered how they are going to pay for it all.

“This was predictable,” Bates said. “This is not an unintended consequence. We knew this was going to happen. Now people are starting to realize because it’s playing out on the recruiting trail.”

Clemson coach Dabo Swinney recently said the entire issue was a “nightmare” because of the disparities from institution to institution. Full cost of attendance means an additional payment for miscellaneous expenses, including travel back home.

Schools use a federally mandated formula to determine what it will cost to attend their university. The payouts vary widely not only from school to school but student to student. Clemson, for example, is set to offer about $3,600 to prospective students. South Carolina’s number is over $4,000. Florida State’s is higher, too. Boston College, on the other hand, is on the lower end.

Bates said the financial aid office is still working on final calculations, but its number should be close to about $1,400.

And yes, coaches have already encountered money questions on the recruiting trail.

“We’re talking about cash,” Swinney said. “It’s one thing when you talk about a recruiting calendar or contact period but when you’re talking about cash, that’s a different deal.”

There is no proof just yet that prospective student-athletes are making choices based on how much money they can get in cost of attendance from each school. But cost of attendance cannot be looked at in a vacuum, either.

“It’s more equitable than people think,” Notre Dame athletic director Jack Swarbrick said. “I don't know whether it will be perceived as equitable. So it may produce a real advantage because people don’t understand it. If the only thing you look to is, 'How big is the cost-of-attendance check,' great inequities will exist. But if you realize the cost-of-attendance check is bigger or smaller, depending upon the other direct financial aid you’ve been given, it starts to even out.”

Because there are so many unknowns, the natural reaction is to look at the individual dollar amounts offered and immediately jump to conclusions. Every coach and athletic director is worried about being at a competitive disadvantage. But nobody knows whether that is actually the case.

“Sometimes I think in idealistic terms,” Virginia athletic director Craig Littlepage said. “I would like to think that kids are making decisions not strictly on the basis of financials. What we have seen in so many cases over a long period of time is there’s no such thing as a level playing field. It’s an elusive concept. As much as we have done things to legislate the even playing field, there are going to be unintended consequences. Let’s see over a period of time what the true impact is and let’s try to figure out how we can take some of the sting out of whatever those adverse consequences may be, if there are some. Mike (London) hasn’t raised the red flag to say, ‘We’re going to get killed’ or ‘It’s working in our favor’ or anything along those lines. We’ll just have to wait and see.”

Still, there is the very real fear that athletic departments will begin to meddle in financial aid offices to try and raise their cost-of-attendance figures.

“It’s not limited to athletics,” Swarbrick said. “It impacts everyone you have on financial aid in your university. If you’re going to re-figure your number to help athletics, you’re making an enormous investment. … The notion people will say, 'Let’s move it to $4,000 for athletics because the other schools are offering $4,000,' I’m not saying people won’t do that, but man, that’s the tail wagging the dog.”

Not much can be done now. Full cost of attendance is set to be implemented in August, so schools have to start living in a new reality.

“The general concept of trying to invest in our student-athletes and our students across the university, that’s obviously very noble and sound and valid,” Bates said. “But the practical implications of it, we felt like the pragmatism of today is what we thought would happen in January.”