Wolf Pack's battle for the full cost of attendance
For most sports fans, "full cost of attendance" probably doesn't mean much.
For Nevada Wolf Pack coaches, "full cost of attendance" means everything.
"It's incredibly important," football coach Brian Polian said.
"It's a big deal," baseball coach Jay Johnson said. "It's a really, really big deal."
Last January, the NCAA's five "power conferences" passed a measure that allows universities to pay the full cost of attendance on top of athletic scholarships, an additional stipend that could pay student-athletes anywhere from $1,400 to $5,650 more per year. The full cost-of-attendance debate has left the Wolf Pack with a big decision: Either fund the initiative at the pricey cost of $1 million a year or take a major hit in recruiting.
The goal of the cost of attendance was to share more of the NCAA's revenue pie with student-athletes and ensure they could live more comfortably. One consequence, intended or not, is that the extra payout has become a major bargaining chip in recruiting.
Think about it: If School A offers you a cost of attendance of $5,000 a year (essentially $25,000 on top of the life of a scholarship) and School B isn't offering the cost of attendance, which school are you picking?
Schools in the money-rich power conferences — Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern — haven't had an issue getting the funds to pay the cost of attendance. But in mid-major conferences like the Mountain West, which Nevada is a member of, things are a little different.
Of the 12 Mountain West schools, eight have pledged to pay student-athletes the cost of attendance in 2015-16, starting Aug. 1. Two have yet to make a decision. One, Air Force, doesn't offer scholarships. Only one school has ruled out offering the full cost of attendance for the 2015-16 season. That school is Nevada.
"For us, we're planning on the fall of 2016 to implement that," athletic director Doug Knuth said. "We're 100 percent supportive of doing it. We understand it and we think it's important, but for financial reasons, we won't be able to be behind it 100 percent from Day One."
A major recruiting tool
When college coaches recruit prospects, the players ask about the school's academic reputation, facilities, professors and future teammates. There's a new item on the list.
"Now they throw in this new question of whether they'll get the full cost of attendance," Knuth said.
The full cost of attendance — the difference between tuition, room, board and books covered by a scholarship and a federally mandated projection that accounts for the cost of transportation, laundry, school supplies, a cellphone and other small expenses — is a pricey proposition for athletic departments.
For Nevada, the full cost of attendance is $4,800 per scholarship. Compound that by the Wolf Pack's number of full scholarships issued each year (about 220) and that's more than $1 million per season. Considering Nevada has the Mountain West's lowest annual budget of $23 million, that's a large chunk of money.
"It's not just lying in a closet somewhere," Knuth said. "I keep on looking, but I haven't found it yet."
The natural question is: Can the Wolf Pack afford to pay the cost of attendance? The more appropriate question is: Can Nevada afford not to pay the cost of attendance given the recruiting impact?
"From the head coach's perspective, it is something that I think about every day," Polian said. "We have to do some cost of attendance or the playing fields will become so imbalanced that it will become very difficult for us to compete.
"In my opinion, if we as a university decided not to do it at all, it would set us back a long, long way. It would shrink our recruiting pool even smaller than it already is."
As a result, Knuth said, the Wolf Pack will find a way to offer the full cost of attendance starting in August 2016. Nevada decided against offering the cost of attendance this year because the school's 2015 recruits have already signed binding letters-of-intent and cost of attendance wasn't a discussion point in their recruitment. But 2016 recruits are asking about it, Knuth said.
"This is ultimately what's needed to remain competitive in our conference and remain competitive nationally," he said. "We have to do this thing. We're going to do it and support it, but we're going to phase it in over a number of the years, and we'll have to figure out the financial side to support it."
Johnson, who has revitalized the Wolf Pack's baseball program, said not a day that goes by that he doesn't think about recruiting. The third-year head coach, who has 11.7 scholarships to split among his players, said getting the full cost of attendance would be like adding additional scholarships to his team because he could essentially offer more money to recruits, a move that he said would be huge in getting better athletes to Nevada.
"It's essentially our salary cap," Johnson said. "This decision affects whether we're going to have this smaller salary cap or this bigger salary cap. If you have a bigger one and do your due diligence on the people you bring in, it will help you have a better team.
"It's a big deal. It's a really, really big deal."
Schools vary on approach
Each Mountain West school is taking a little different approach to paying for the full cost of attendance.
Utah State got a $1.5 million pledge from the legislature to fund the stipend. San Jose State received a one-time $1.6 million payout from the university to cover the 2015-16 cost. Wyoming's legislature will match the funds raised by the department's Cowboy Joe Club fundraising arm. Colorado State is using the $7 million buyout it received when football coach Jim McElwain left for Florida to fund the stipend.
Nevada isn't expected to get any state or university support to fund the cost of attendance and doesn't have any big-money buyouts lying around. (In fact, Knuth inherited a $3.2 million Wolf Pack debt from predecessor Cary Groth.) The Wolf Pack will have to increase revenues to pay the cost of attendance.
"We're looking at all options," Knuth said. "We have to look at our ticket revenue and our fundraising. We're looking at anything that can enhance our revenues, which is something we do all the time anyway, whether it's investing in coaches or facilities or operating budgets.
"We're always looking at ways to enhance our revenues to support any one of those initiatives. This is just another thing on our plate."
MW schools Boise State, Colorado State, Fresno State, San Diego State, San Jose State, Utah State and Wyoming have pledged to fund the full cost of attendance in all sports in 2015-16. UNLV will fund it in football, men's basketball and women's basketball this year and potentially other sports. New Mexico will fund the cost of attendance, but hasn't set a timeline for when the payments will begin. Hawaii is undecided. Payouts range from Boise State's $5,100 stipend to New Mexico's $2,700 payout.
Wyoming athletic director Tom Burman said funding the full cost of attendance is a no-brainer.
"If you don't do it in certain sports, you're putting a fork in yourself," Burman told the Wyoming Eagle Tribune. "You have no chance of winning a recruiting battle if someone else offers cost of attendance."
The Wolf Pack's stipend of $4,800 (well above the Mountain West average of $3,740 per scholarship) is the second highest in the conference. That's a blessing and curse. That high cost means a larger annual budget-line expense. On the flipside, the higher stipend could be appealing to recruits on the fence.
Wolf Pack baseball player Christian Stolo, a highly sought-after recruit who had multiple scholarship offers, said "it would definitely help" financially to get the full cost of attendance. But he said that wouldn't have been the determining factor in which school he chose.
"I talked to a lot of people when I was looking at schools and got a lot of good advice, and the main thing for recruits to look at is, how much does the school actually want you?" Stolo said. "The scholarship money offered will help tell you that, but it's more than that. You get a feeling about how much the coaches want you. If you use that to decide, you'll make a better choice and be happier at the school."
Knuth said the differences in the full cost-of-attendance figures shouldn't be the determining factor anyway. As a high school tennis star, Knuth was recruited by several colleges. He eventually picked the University of Connecticut — because of the coaches, not the amount of scholarship money.
"My sense is, and I could be totally wrong, but my sense is a lot of students will make decisions on where they want to go to college based on their teammates and their coaches and the facilities and the support structure, not just the dollars in their scholarship," Knuth said. "I have that sense because that's the way it's been for decades. People make decisions and it's not always based on money."
A slippery slope?
Polian figures college athletes on a full-ride scholarship have it pretty good.
"I was not a scholarship athlete," said Polian, who played football at Division III John Carroll University. "My wife was not a scholarship athlete. She put herself through school. When student-athletes graduate from college debt free, there are 14 million college students across the country on financial aid. These young people have the opportunity to graduate from college debt free. I think that is a huge advantage."
Still, Polian said he's in favor of a small stipend — "maybe an extra $1,000 to help pay for travel and clothes and food" — to help make life a little more comfortable. He's just concerned about the future.
"I think we could be opening Pandora's box because somebody has to regulate these schools from saying, 'OK. Our cost of attendance is $15,000 now,'" Polian said. "That is my fear. Luckily, administrations and financial aid offices are involved. It's not just football coaches deciding what the cost of attendance is, but it could lead us down a slippery slope and I'm nervous about that."
Polian isn't the only person concerned. Boston College was the only Power 5 school to vote against the full cost of attendance in a 79-1 vote. The Eagles argued that schools already have financial issues and can't afford the expenditure, and expressing worries about schools potentially scheming the system.
Cost of attendance numbers are based on federal guidelines and produced by the financial aid office, but Boston College claimed the formula "is sufficiently ambiguous that adjustments for recruiting advantage will take place."
It might not be a coincidence that the Southeastern Conference, known for pouring money into football, has three of the NCAA's four largest cost of attendance figures; Tennessee is first at $5,666.
Knuth isn't quite as worried about colleges bending the rules as a recruiting tactic. While some have painted the cost-of-attendance argument as the end of amateur athletics in the NCAA and a major delineation between the Power 5 conferences and the rest of the pack, Knuth doesn't see it that way. The divide between the haves and have-nots has always been there, Knuth said.
"So, I don't feel like this is a slippery slope or the final straw that's going to separate us from them," Knuth said. "It's been this way for 100 years. The power schools have always had bigger buildings and budgets and more stuff. This is just another nuance."
Although Polian has reservations about the cost of attendance, one thing is clear: Nevada has to find a way to fund the initiative. If it doesn't, the Wolf Pack will fall even further behind.
"The last two years, we have won some recruiting battles against Pac-12 schools that, on paper, people said we shouldn't win," Polian said. "There are some differences in facilities and things like that, but the value of the scholarship and what it provided were relatively the same. If we did not do cost of attendance, it would make those battles nearly impossible to ever win. We have to do this."
Columnist Chris Murray provides insight on Northern Nevada sports. Contact him at email@example.com or follow him on Twitter @MurrayRGJ.