01:50 - Source: CNN
The true madness of NCAA basketball? (2015)

Editor’s Note: Abigail Seldin was the co-founder of College Abacus, a higher education price transparency website. She is a board member at Temple University’s Hope Center for College Community and Justice. The views expressed here are the author’s. View more opinion on CNN.

CNN  — 

Against the backdrop of recent college admissions scandals and the onslaught of March Madness, the staggering amount of money in college sports has never been more apparent. Everyone is making money – except the players, of course.

For example: according to data from the Department of Education and USA Today, Duke makes more than $33 million annually on NCAA basketball-related revenue, and Coach Mike Krzyewski (Coach K) earns $8.89 million a year. In contrast, Duke’s star player, Zion Williamson, is capped at $75,370, the cost of attendance at Duke, plus incidentals. All but $3,466 of this goes right back to Duke for tuition, room and board.

Abigail Seldin

The court fight about NCAA player compensation continues, and the latest case is headed to appeal. Just weeks ago, a federal judge ruled that Duke University can pay for Zion Williamson’s biology textbooks – but not his basketball skills. The recent ruling limits additional compensation to NCAA student-athletes to educational expenses.

But who sets the ceiling on these expenses? How are they regulated? The answers offer a path for student-athletes outside the courtroom and explain why pursuing additional compensation for making their schools millions should involve challenging the way “cost of attendance” (COA) is set by the schools they attend.

Right now, COAs often fail to reflect the reality of life for everyone from student-athletes to homeless students – and a new approach would make the system more just for all students.

COA or cost of attendance is a college’s “all in” sticker price, and one of the most critical aspects of a student’s college financial aid package. Outlined in the Higher Education Act of 1965, the COA has a legally defined list of components depending on the type of student, course of study and institution.

For a student at any given institution, that school’s COA is a critical number, as it also represents the top limit for the grant aid a student can accept to attend a school and the limit for how much a student can borrow in low-cost loans from the federal government to support their education.

Until recently, the COA also represented the outer limit of allowable grant aid for a student-athlete. Under the new court ruling, the student-athletes cannot demand compensation from their schools (represented by NCAA) beyond educational expenses and COA.

Given this state of affairs, students-athletes should push for their cost of attendance – with its definition set in clear law – be altered to reflect their lives on campus. Individual school financial aid offices can make these changes immediately – without the courts or Department of Education.

Colleges and universities set their cost of attendance with limited guidance from the Department of Education. This has birthed a higher education marketplace where institutions use their sticker prices to signal many different messages to their potential students. Standard strategies include raising the sticker price to signal exclusivity (even while maintaining the same average price after financial aid), or lowering the room and board estimate beyond what is merited by local costs of living, to make a school look more affordable.

This marketing gimmick, often used at the expense of students trying to plan responsibly for college costs, can now be a tool in the hands of student-athletes. Given the almost complete discretion afforded to universities around COA, student-athletes should demand a material increase in the “other costs” that their institutions include in COAs.

Duke could set the COA for Williamson and other students at $175,000, allocating the additional $100,000 to “other costs” category available in student financial aid packages under COA.

Even if you disagree with idea of compensating student-athletes, it is clear that they incur costs different from (and likely beyond) those of other on-campus students. The vast majority of college students today work, with their wages going toward their living expenses in school. The opportunity to hold a part-time job is not generally available to Division I athletes, given their intense practice schedules, so an adjustment on that basis alone seems reasonable. Past efforts to have student-athletes recognized as employees (with a right to unionize) have also been unsuccessful.

There is one more reason why increasing the COA makes sense. Such a change would not only affect student-athletes, but also homeless and hungry college students across America. Back to our Duke example: A homeless student attending college full-time also pays bills that most students don’t consider. Housing and food between semesters (when the dorms and dining halls are closed) are just the tip of the iceberg for today’s on-campus homeless students.

According to a 2018 study by Temple University’s Hope Center for College, Community and Justice, a third of all students nationwide are struggling with food or housing insecurity. These students can’t ask parents to cover essentials like twin extra-long sheets or a $300 textbook or even ramen – so they do without, skipping meals and borrowing books while working multiple jobs.

Adjusting the COA for all kinds of students, from student-athletes to the homeless – which financial aid offices can do whenever they choose – would raise the limit on what these students can borrow to support themselves during their college years.

Skeptics will assail this proposal as dangerous, noting that higher COA would allow students to borrow ruinous amounts of money, far beyond the actual out-of-pocket cost of attending a given institution. Yet, the COA of most institutions – largely unregulated and generally unaudited – already exceeds what students can afford.

Even with available grant aid, 95% of institutions are too expensive for students with the greatest need. A reconsideration of COA to reflect the reality faced by today’s students – Division I athletes, student-parents, Pell recipients, homeless students and others – would allow institutions to recognize the needs and challenges faced by different kinds of students in a tangible way that improves their odds of completing college. After all, fewer than 60% of college students make it all the way to graduation.

Get our free weekly newsletter

  • Sign up for CNN Opinion’s newsletter.
  • Join us on Twitter and Facebook

    For student-athletes, COA adjustments would raise the limit on the grant aid they can legitimately receive from their schools, improving their situations while helping to tamp down illicit compensation practices. For homeless and hungry college students, the impact could be fewer skipped meals and safe housing.

    Sounds like a slam dunk to me.