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By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
When the Division I Board of Directors voted to allow institutions to offer some student-athletes up to $2,000 for miscellaneous expenses toward the full cost of attendance and to extend scholarship offers beyond the traditional one-year term, Sun Belt Conference Commissioner Wright Waters was ready.
The conference had been tracking on the issue and embraced the concepts as beneficial for student-athletes.
“We said (to our schools), ‘Okay, have at it,’” Waters said. “We told them every recruit should be treated as an individual. Each one is different and has different needs. We want to provide maximum flexibility for our institutions.”
Chris Massaro, athletics director at Sun Belt member Middle Tennessee State, said whether or not the school would provide the miscellaneous expense allowance to its student-athletes wasn’t a question at all. While his budget doesn’t compare to those at Texas or Ohio State, Massaro said Middle Tennessee was committed to making the option available to its coaches.
Only student-athletes receiving the value of a full scholarship are eligible for the miscellaneous expense allowance. Any student-athlete in a head-count sport would be eligible.
Student-athletes receiving a full equivalency, a partial equivalency and aid from other sources (institutional or academic aid) or full academic/institutional aid are eligible for the miscellaneous expense allowance. However, any student-athlete who receives the miscellaneous expense allowance (even if they receive no other athletics aid) will become a counter.
Financial aid (such as the Pell Grant and student loans) not counted per NCAA rules toward the full scholarship limit may not be used to reach the full grant limit in order to be eligible for the miscellaneous expense allowance. The new legislation exempts all other forms of non-athletically related financial aid from counting toward team limits, which will provide student-athletes with additional sources of institutional financial aid.
Student Assistance Funds may be used to provide the miscellaneous expense allowance.
The NCAA believes schools should count for Title IX purposes any aid awarded on the basis of athletics ability or participation. According to the U.S. Department of Education Office for Civil Rights, institutions must ensure that the total dollars awarded to male and female student-athletes fall within one percentage point of student-athlete participation. The NCAA is waiting on confirmation from the OCR that this will apply to the miscellaneous expense allowance, as well.
More male student-athletes receive full grants-in-aid, so more of them would be eligible for the miscellaneous expense allowance. Schools will have to decide whether to award the allowance to all eligible student-athletes, knowing that, if the department is already in compliance with Title IX, the same number of dollars must be spent annually on athletically related financial aid in all men’s sports and all women’s sports.
The multi-year award legislation allows schools to offer athletics aid for periods longer than one academic year. Schools will be allowed to provide student-athletes an athletics aid agreement for up to five years. And, institutions are now able to provide financial aid, including athletics aid, to a former student-athlete for any term in which he or she enrolls.
Multi-year awards are not required to award the same amount each year. For example, a multi-year agreement can stipulate that a student-athlete will receive a certain amount in the freshman year and a different amount in the sophomore year.
Schools must also continue to adhere to current rules governing reduction or nonrenewal of aid as it relates to multi-year awards and the miscellaneous expense allowance. Similarly, institutions can not reduce or cancel athletics aid in a multi-year award unless the situation involves a legislated condition such as academic ineligibility or disciplinary action.
“It’s a priority,” he said. “If something is a priority, you shift your resources around enough to make allowances for it.”
The issue became a priority for two reasons, he said: It’s the right thing to do for student-athletes, and they know they will be recruiting against other schools that will be offering the additional funding.
“We want to be as competitive as we possibly can. They’re going to do it, we’re going to do it too,” he said.
Massaro estimates the MEA will cost his department between $300,000 and $400,000 out of his $18 million to $20 million budget. He said the school will make adjustments by cutting expenses and not spending in other areas.
Waters said that while he anticipates allowing some use of the conference’s Student-Athlete Assistance Fund pool for the miscellaneous expense allowance, he believes each athletics director should look at his budget with a critical eye.
“I told one athletics director who said he didn’t know how he could afford it to ask himself, ‘Do I really need four sets of baseball uniforms? Maybe I only need two. Do I really need that trip to Hawaii? Maybe I can find opponents with a bus trip,’” Waters said. “It’s going to make some people look at their expenses and figure it out. They’re going to have to sit down with their coaches and tell them to find the money in their budgets to pay for it.”
Just how Middle Tennessee will address spending in an equitable manner is still up in the air. Massaro said that while he’s not sure how it will work, the school is committed to an equitable distribution of financial aid dollars between its male and female student-athletes.
Waters hopes his schools wouldn’t make the MEA awards only to its football and basketball players, but said the conference will not mandate that its institutions implement the program in any specific way.
Middle Tennessee is still evaluating what its strategy will be with multi-year awards. Massaro called it a “trickier issue” that divides athletics-related aid from all other forms of aid on campus. Most other forms of aid, including academic awards, require students to meet a minimum standard of performance (like a grade-point average) in order to retain the award. Because of NCAA rules, the multi-year awards cannot be tied to athletics performance.
“It is inconsistent with the rest of campus. We have to make sure we fold into our campus environment,” Massaro said. The school has designated a person on its staff to be the financial aid expert to work with the coaches and the compliance office to ensure that, should multi-year awards be offered, no team exceeds its equivalency limits at any time.
For Waters, the addition of the miscellaneous expense allowance is a return to the days of true “full scholarships.”
“It’s unfortunate that we have misled people to believe that we were awarding a full scholarship at a time when we had a lot of first-generation college students who didn’t know better. Kids would arrive on campus and find out they still had to pay out of pocket for some things. That’s bad,” he said. “We used to get supplies and were able to sell our comp tickets. This will make athletics competitive with other high-end grants on campus.”