For the first time, the NCAA is allowing college athletes to receive money in their scholarships to cover the so-called cost of attendance, those expenses beyond tuition, room and board, books and fees that come with attending school.
Depending on the school, it could mean an extra $1,500 to as much as $6,000 for an athlete.
For decades, universities and colleges have been required by the U.S. Department of Education to make public a good-faith estimate on cost of attendance.
But the arrival of cost of attendance stipends, and the fact that their value varies greatly from school to school, has some coaches — notably Alabama's Nick Saban and Clemson's Dabo Swinney — and fans worried. They are concerned about competitive balance and schools inflating their figures to give out bigger bucks to athletes.
Also, as Virginia Tech coaches showed this week, some seem a little confused about how it works. Hokies defensive coordinator Bud Foster talked about fining players for minor transgressions out of their cost of attendance money. Not so fast. The NCAA has rules prohibiting schools from withholding scholarship funds.
It has been a learning experience on campuses this summer.
"We are working to try to continuously reinforce what those numbers are and where they came from and what it really does cover," said Maggie McKinley, senior associate athletic director for the University of Cincinnati.
To help cut through the confusion, here are some answers from experts about cost of attendance.
Q: Who calculates cost of attendance and how is it regulated on campus?
A: The financial aid office.
Q: How is a cost-of-attendance figure used?
A: The calculation serves two purposes. It gives those paying for college a realistic expectation of what they will spend. Even more important, it sets a limit on the amount of financial aid a student can receive during an academic year.
Q: What expenses are factored into cost of attendance?
A: "It's really divided into what we consider direct costs, what (a student) will have to pay directly to the university, and then other indirect costs that they might incur, like obviously they're going to have to do laundry," said Jeff Gerkin, assistant dean and director of financial aid at the University of Tennessee.
Tennessee's cost of attendance increase adds $5,666 to an athletic scholarship, most in the SEC.
Direct costs include tuition, fees, room and board and books.
Indirect costs include travel and other miscellaneous personal expenses, which could cover clothes, entertainment, food and sundries.
Gerkin said travel often accounts for most of the indirect costs. At Tennessee, three round trips from Knoxville, in the northeast part of the state, to Memphis, in the southwest corner, are used to set a baseline figure.
Q: How are miscellaneous costs calculated?
A: There is some subjectivity here, but financial aid officials are not just pulling numbers out of the air. The figures are research-based. "To help determine this figure, we use resources such as the College Board, U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, costs from local and national businesses and/or student surveys," said Richard Ritzman, director of financial aid at the University of Memphis.
For Memphis, the cost of attendance increase to an athletic scholarship will be $5,373 per year. Miscellaneous costs accounted for $1,983, Ritzman said.
"What a student will actually spend on miscellaneous will depend on the lifestyle of each student," Ritzman said.
So, yes, students can use that money any way they want — but then they will have to explain to Mom and Dad why they needed to hit them up for new shoes.
Q: Does every student at a school have the same cost of attendance?
A: No. "Institutions can have a wide array of cost of attendance figures in terms of various classifications of students that they want to target," Gerkin said. "So some schools may have a lot of very specific cost of attendance across a broad category of students or they may use averages that the majority of students that fall into those categories are assessed those costs."
Generally, most schools have a different cost of attendance for in-state students and out-of-state students. The cost of attendance can also vary for undergraduate and graduate students. Individual students can also petition a school to have their cost of attendance increased.
The SEC has passed a rule that requires its schools to report how miscellaneous expenses are determined and any instances when an individual's cost of attendance varies from the norm at a school.
Q: How often does a school's cost of attendance change?
A: Most schools make adjustments from year-to-year.
Q: Could athletic departments try to have the cost of attendance raised as a way to benefit recruiting?
A: Corruption is always possible, but the financial aid office crunches the numbers and they must be approved at the upper levels of administration.
"Our numbers are vetted through our provost office which is over on the academic side of the house along with our chancellor's office," Gerkin said. "We've received no undue pressure."
Inflating the numbers to help recruiting could do far more harm to a school. Too much borrowing can lead to borrowers defaulting on their loans and that can be a problem for schools.
"If too many of our students were to default on their student loan as they go through the repayment period that does reflect back on the institution and could hamper the institution and our eligibility as a whole to provide financial aid to students," Gerkin said.
Follow Ralph D. Russo at www.Twitter.com/ralphDrussoAP