After years of rapid spending increases in major-college athletics, a series of large new outlays, including more scholarship assistance for players, has Division I leaders on edge about their budgets.

Since December, at least four big-time programs have announced plans to eliminate sports or make multimillion-dollar cuts. The University of Alabama at Birmingham jettisoned its football program, the first top-tier university to eliminate that sport in nearly 20 years. (The decision is under review.)

The University of North Carolina at Wilmington plans to cut men’s cross country, men’s outdoor track and field, and women’s indoor and outdoor track and field, while adding women’s sand volleyball. The College of Charleston said it would stop sponsoring swimming and diving. And Southern Methodist University is expected to cut up to $35-million in annual operating expenses through layoffs and administrative changes.

As athletics leaders gather for the National Collegiate Athletic Association’s annual convention, being held just outside Washington this week, there is expected to be more talk of cuts. A group of 10 associations of coaches plans to raise concerns about the elimination of teams. In recent weeks, the group has met with conference commissioners, athletic directors, NCAA leaders, members of Congress, and the U.S. Olympic Committee to try to thwart potential program cuts.

The worries stem in part from new rules, expected to be passed this week, that would allow colleges to cover the full cost of attendance for players. If colleges adopt the measure, it could add more than $1-million each to their annual budgets.

The increased assistance—for many athletes, it would amount to an extra few thousand dollars a year for living expenses—is just one of many new benefits that programs are providing to players.

Last year, after the NCAA eased its rules on spending for athletes’ meals, many colleges sharply increased their food budgets, with some spending an extra $1-million or more to feed their athletes. Many institutions have promised to cover tuition and other expenses for players who return for their degrees after their playing days have ended. And there is talk among athletic directors in the wealthiest leagues of providing more medical assistance for current and former athletes.

Those changes come as colleges face uncertainty over new lawsuits, including attempts to create a free market for players. Last year a federal judge ruled that the NCAA had violated federal antitrust laws by unreasonably restraining athletes from trading on their images and likenesses. The decision could give major-college football and basketball players the chance to earn thousands of dollars a year in deferred compensation for the commercial use of their images. The NCAA has appealed the ruling.

Legal battles like that were prompted in part by conferences’ increasingly lucrative media deals and colleges’ failure to share more of those dollars with players.

‘No One Knows How to Pay for It’

As the lawsuits against the NCAA and its member colleges have multiplied, institutions have shown an increasing willingness to offer athletes more benefits. But athletics officials say they are still figuring out whether and how they can afford it.

“There is a rationale that athletes should receive more of the pie,” said Michael Cross, athletic director at Bradley University, an Illinois institution that competes in the Missouri Valley Conference. “But the problem is that no one knows how to pay for it except in some limited cases.”

Mr. Cross, who runs a blog focused on cutbacks in college sports calledUltimate Sports Insider, said the recent worries can be traced to the NCAA’s decision last year to allow the five wealthiest conferences more leeway to spend their money as they wish.

That change, he said, has prompted programs outside of the power conferences to think harder about their priorities, with some considering putting more money into the teams that have the biggest payoff.

“More people are going to say, ‘We’re going to be as competitive as we can be in basketball, but it might cost us swimming,’” he said. “At the end of the day, you have to make tough choices and choose between your children, and that’s ultimately what people are going to decide to do.”

It’s not just the have-nots that are re-evaluating their spending. Kansas State University, which has a $66-million athletics budget, plans to spend $1-million per year to cover players’ cost of attendance. The athletic department has upped its annual food budget by $1.2-million.

Anticipating those changes, the university cut several hundred thousand dollars from its bowl-travel budget, said Kirk H. Schulz, its president. When the Wildcats squared off against UCLA this month in the Valero Alamo Bowl, the university decided to take fewer staff members than it had initially planned, and had some employees schedule shorter stays. The athletic department also chartered fewer flights than it had for previous bowl games, opting for commercial travel instead.

“I don’t want to say that everyone said this was a great idea,” Mr. Schulz said. “But athletics has got to operate as a self-sustaining group and live within their means. There is not some big kitty that, if they go over, we just help them out.”

Like other programs in the Big 12 Conference, Kansas State has limited the number of teams it sponsors. It offers 16 sports, the minimum required for major-college programs.

Institutions that sponsor more sports than they can afford may soon face a day of reckoning, Mr. Schulz said, particularly as universities’ general-use dollars become scarcer.

“It’s a very valid point for faculty at those schools to say, ‘Do we need to have all those sports?’” he said. “Maybe the dollars should be used for business programs or something else.”

Coaches Take the Offensive

Such worries have led coaches to organize. In recent weeks the leaders of coaches’ associations have urged their constituents to raise their voices, seeking support from alumni, parents, government officials, and business executives. According to emails the group’s leaders have sent to coaches, which the leaders shared with The Chronicle, the goal is to “Save Olympic Sports.”

One recent email encouraged coaches to “challenge the narrative of student-athlete exploitation in every conversation. Amplify the value of our programs to the institution and the contributions of our student-athletes as role models.”

In an interview, officials representing coaches’ associations for soccer, swimming, volleyball, and wrestling said they supported providing more benefits to athletes, but they were concerned that such moves might lead to cuts of lower-profile teams.

“There are limited ways for athletic departments to get big chunks of money,” said Kathleen J. DeBoer, executive director of the American Volleyball Coaches Association. “Reducing a couple of scholarships or taking away a middle-class coaching job is just not going to give you the kind of money you’re going to need to fund all these new things.”

The push to spend more money on the highest-profile sports, including added benefits for football and basketball players, will force programs to pit smaller-budget sports against one another, she said.

“It’s like the major sports have sinned and now the Olympic sports are going to be put into a ‘Hunger Games’ to see who survives,” Ms. DeBoer said.

Kyle B. Kallander, commissioner of the Big South Conference, whose institutions’ athletics budgets range from $5-million to about $30-million a year, predicted that, before programs eliminate sports, they would probably cut scholarships or consider a scholarship-free model.

But he believes the threat of cutbacks is real.

“I have a huge concern about the viability, especially of men’s Olympic sports,” he said. No institution in his conference has made plans to cut teams, he said. “But there are a lot of conversations about how are we going to afford this and what are we going to look at. I’ve certainly sensed that anything’s on the table.”

As departments wrestle with paying for the new costs, Mr. Kallander said, they will have to look at developing new revenue streams, including possibly working more closely with professional leagues to help cover expenses. He said they may need to appeal to the NCAA to allow more-creative financing.

“States aren’t coming through with any more dollars, and student fees are largely tapped out,” he said. “It’s going to be a real challenge to figure this out.”

Alternatives to Cuts

There appears to be an openness to new ways of doing business. The Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics—which has an athletics-spending database that highlights what it calls unsustainable spending patterns in big-time college sports—this month released the results of a survey that explored potential new models for Division I sports.

More than 40 percent of the respondents, who included college administrators, athletic directors, and coaches, expressed a desire to explore new structures as an alternative to cutting sports. Such changes could include establishing more regional competition for certain sports, allowing programs to reduce travel costs and missed class time.

As athletics leaders weigh their next steps, some are appealing to their colleagues to tap the brakes.

“I don’t want to put us in a position where we eliminate opportunities because we made decisions in haste,” said Jamie B. Pollard, athletic director at Iowa State University.

When his department was deciding how much more money to spend on athletes’ nutritional needs, he said, he and his staff sought advice from players to help shape the decision.

“They didn’t want us to do anything that was going to jeopardize other student-athletes in the room,” Mr. Pollard said. Instead of matching the millions of dollars that other universities were planning to spend, he said, he made more modest changes, adding $400,000 a year for players’ food.

He plans to consider the same approach with other new expenses. “Sure, our players would like to have more money,” he said, “but not at the expense of other student-athletes.”