Athletic directors around the country have a new expense to consider this year as they put their budgets together, as the cost-of-attendance increases to athletic scholarships approved by the Power 5 conferences could cost many schools in the neighborhood of $1 million.

While that’s not a major concern to wealthier athletic departments like Alabama, Ohio State and Texas, it may force administrators at mid-major schools to make some difficult decisions.

“That’s a large sum of money that we’re going to have to figure out how we’re going to manage it,” South Alabama Athletic Director Joel Erdmann said.

While FBS schools can decide not to fund the cost-of-attendance increases, the cost of that decision would likely be felt on the recruiting trail, where the value of their scholarships would pale in comparison to other schools that are funding the extra stipend. Erdmann and his counterpart at Troy, John Hartwell, said they both plan to fund the increases, the cost of which could flirt with seven figures if funded fully.

Schools also are left to determine for themselves to what extent they plan to furnish the additional money, however — whether it’s just for certain sports, just for student-athletes on full scholarship or divvied up in some other way. While Erdmann said South Alabama plans to provide “some kind of benefit in relation to cost of attendance for every scholarship athlete” – full or partial – Hartwell said the parameters are still being worked out at Troy.

johnhartwellFile.jpgTroy Athletic Director John Hartwell says many mid-major schools are going to have to be “creative” in how they fund cost of attendance. (File photo)

“Certainly I don’t want us to be at a recruiting disadvantage, but at the same time in good conscience I can’t say, Hey, I’ve got a source for this $990,000 and we’re all-in tomorrow,'” Hartwell said. “In a perfect world, the thing is to not cut other expenses to be able to take care of this. In a perfect world, you’re going to go find additional revenue sources to be able to take care of it, which is easier said than done in a lot of cases. But I also think we’ve got to be creative in how we look at it.”

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One solution, Hartwell said, may be dividing up cost-of-attendance stipends among players much like baseball and softball programs have to divide up scholarships. “But, especially with the landscape of the NCAA today and the number of lawsuits out there,” he said, “the first thing this whole cost-of-attendance thing does is scream, ‘Hey, if you don’t fund it in an equitable manner, you’re going to have potential Title IX issues.'”

Further complicating matters is the fact that cost-of-attendance figures vary from school to school. Just within the Sun Belt Conference, Hartwell estimated they range from about $3,000 above the current value of a scholarship on the low end to over $8,000 at the school with the highest figure in the conference, Georgia Southern. At Troy, Hartwell said the figure is $4,400 for in-state student-athletes and $4,900 for those from out of state.

There is a variety of reasons for the differing numbers, Hartwell said, including housing and transportation costs. A large number of Georgia Southern’s student-athletes, for instance, come from the northern part of the state, resulting in more money spent on transportation.

“The challenge is for a young man or young woman who’s being recruited and they’re looking at it, in some cases I’m afraid it’s going to come down to: ‘Hey, what’s the bottom line of dollars you can put in my pocket?'” Hartwell said. “In a perfect world, that should not be the basis for a decision that a young man or a young woman makes (about) where to attend school.”

While student-athletes make those decisions, athletic departments may have to make tough decisions in order to fund the cost-of-attendance increases. If the ideal scenario of raising additional funding isn’t workable, the other option is to cut expenses in other areas – and one option is to cut programs altogether.

“I think in some of those athletic departments who participate in more than the minimum required for NCAA classification, I do think you’re going to see an analysis of that,” Hartwell said. “I know those conversations are being had even at autonomy 5 schools.”

Such conversations have U.S. Olympic committee CEO Scott Blackmun worried, as he told Yahoo Sports recently that he is “very concerned” about the future of Olympic sports on the college level.

Chattanooga recently dropped its men’s track program and the College of Charleston dropped men’s and women’s swimming. Kent State is re-examining its entire athletic program, top to bottom.

But what about the sport that carries the most scholarships and costs the most – football? UAB President Ray Watts told AL.com in January that the projected added expenses of cost-of-attendance were taken into “strong consideration” as the Blazers decided to drop football. And Sard Verbinnen Co., which handled the communications plan for the decision, speculated that other schools would follow UAB’s lead.

So far, that hasn’t happened, and Hartwell doesn’t believe it will.

“I just think it’s too valuable,” he said. “I know UAB’s situation, which is currently under very heavy review and scrutiny. Yes, it’s an expensive endeavor, but it also provides immeasurable exposure and opportunity for your university.”

Erdmann noted there are “still many unknowns” in implementing cost-of-attendance – where the money will come from, how it can be allocated, how Pell Grants figure into the equation, and other considerations.

“I think unquestionably it is going to add to how Division I institutions look at themselves and their ability to provide the resources that are required to compete at a desired level,” Erdmann said of the added expense. “You’ve got to have a pretty darn solid conservative financial plan not only to implement this for one year, but for the next three years or the next six years or the next 10 years. This is here to stay.”

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