Last year, after a federal judge ruled that the National Collegiate Athletic Association may not cap scholarships for athletes below their full cost of attendance, Texas Christian University conducted an online survey of undergraduates to determine the accuracy of its cost-of-attendance estimates.

The university asked students how much they spent on housing, groceries, and commuting, and how many trips they took home during the semester. As part of the analysis, the university called airlines, apartment complexes, and local businesses to evaluate the costs that students might incur above their tuition, fees, room and board, and books.

Colleges are required to submit an estimate of those costs to the federal government. The costs can influence prospective students’ choice of institution and affect how much money they can borrow to go to college.

Texas Christian determined that students’ monthly living expenses were much higher than the university had been projecting. As a result, the university came up with a new estimate — $4,700 per academic year, more than double its previous figure — which it now includes among the expenses for prospective students.

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The change makes TCU, which costs nearly $60,000 a year to attend, appear even more expensive than it has been in recent years. The move also provides the athletic department with a potential new bargaining chip in the recruitment of elite athletes.

Beginning this fall, major-college athletic departments are set to begin covering players’ full cost of attendance, part of a change enacted in January by the five biggest conferences.

In the span of a few months, Texas Christian went from having one of the lowest cost-of-attendance estimates among the 65 biggest athletic departments to one of the highest, according to a Chronicle analysis.

Moves like that have led to much consternation in college sports, as programs with less money to spend worry that they will be at a competitive disadvantage in recruiting players.

Such worries have led athletic directors to consider new rules that would standardize aid allowances for athletes. The discussions are at an early stage but have included suggestions that all major programs be allowed to offer players a certain amount — say, $4,000 per player over nine months — no matter how much their colleges cost to attend.

The changes have also prompted athletics officials at several major colleges to make calls to their financial-aid offices, asking if the cost-of-attendance estimates can be increased to accommodate athletics.

Financial-aid officials say they would not make such accommodations just for athletics, as the changes could affect their overall recruiting efforts and how much financial aid they must hand out to students in need. But they understand the motivations for colleges.

“It’s put a perverse incentive on schools to inflate their listed costs,” says Chuck Knepfle, director of financial aid at Clemson University. He says he has not been asked to change his estimates or felt pressure to do so. “But there is certainly an incentive if a school wants to do that.”

Swings in Estimates

Despite pressures to keep their overall prices low, many colleges in the five biggest athletics conferences — the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pacific-12, and Southeastern — have increased their cost-of-attendance estimates steadily in recent years, according to a Chronicle analysis of the figures that institutions report to the federal government.

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Ten of the 65 colleges in those leagues have raised their estimated cost-of-attendance expenses by at least 20 percent over a recent seven-year period. Five institutions have at least doubled those miscellaneous expenses during that time. (Colleges calculate the number by looking at the difference between “direct” costs — tuition, fees, room and board, and books — and “indirect” costs, such as transportation and other personal expenses.)

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Over that time, many colleges have also decreased their estimated cost of attendance. That is consistent with patterns among all institutions, which often underestimate their students’ cost of attendance, according to Sara Goldrick-Rab, a professor of educational-policy studies and sociology at the University of Wisconsin at Madison, and Robert Kelchen, an assistant professor of educational leadership, management, and policy at Seton Hall University.

According to their research, nearly one-third of colleges with large numbers of students living off campus provide families with cost-of-attendance estimates that are at least $3,000 less than the amount thecolleges actually cost.

Their research, which assessed the accuracy of colleges’ allowances by comparing them to cost-of-living estimates specific to institutions’ geographic regions, found that many colleges don’t have the resources to accurately estimate their students’ living expenses. Two-thirds of the colleges in the Big 5 conferences increased their cost-of-attendance figures at least once between 2006-7 and 2013-14, The Chronicle found.

During that time, North Carolina State University increased its estimates 74 percent, after adjusting for inflation in September 2013 dollars, to $3,486. N.C. State officials attribute the increase to the price of student health insurance, which the state’s higher-education system began asking colleges to account for in their cost estimates.

After finding that students’ direct health-insurance costs were not as high as it had estimated, N.C. State has taken those expenses out of its cost-of-attendance calculation. This fall the university plans to provide players with $2,666 in additional scholarship assistance.

Estimated student health-insurance costs caused Ohio State University’s cost-of-attendance estimates to go the opposite direction during that recent seven-year span. In 2006-7 it estimated an additional $4,316 in students’ miscellaneous expenses; in 2013-14 it projected $2,454.

After an analysis of students’ expenses, the university determined that a majority of undergraduates are able to “waive out” of student health insurance, as they have other health coverage available to them, Diane Corbett, executive director of enrollment services and student financial aid, says by email.

“Removing the cost of this insurance reflects a more accurate assessment of costs for OSU students,” she says. For students who have to pay out of pocket for health insurance, the university can adjust their cost-of-attendance allowance on a case-by-case basis.

Reporting Mistakes

Some colleges that have had large increases in their cost-of-attendance estimates say that those increases were due to reporting mistakes by their institutions.

Over the recent seven-year period, Clemson reported steady increases in its cost-of-attendance estimates. During 2012-13 the university reported $6,496 in estimated miscellaneous expenses. That was one of the highest figures reported by any of the 65 colleges in the seven-year period.

Mr. Knepfle, the university’s director of financial aid, says that number represented cost-of-living expenses for the university’s commuter students, not a cost-of-attendance estimate for the whole student body. He says he plans to adjust it with the federal government.

“That’s a big problem for our recruitment that I’m going to have to deal with,” he says. (Clemson’s estimated miscellaneous expenses for this year were $3,608.)

Officials at Auburn University, whose cost-of-attendance estimates had remained relatively flat during six of those recent seven years — from $2,304 and $2,678 — experienced a big spike in 2014-15. That year its numbers jumped to $5,586, where they will remain for 2015-16, says Mike Reynolds, executive director of student financial services.

He says Auburn had mistakenly not been including transportation costs in the estimates, which it added in 2014. Institutions must account for cost-of-attendance estimates different ways for different reports, he says, and it was a simple oversight that had nothing to do with sports.

Auburn estimates that its students spend, on average, $2,858 during the academic year for transportation. That figure is higher than what many of the 65 colleges in the Big 5 conferences estimate for students’ overall miscellaneous expenses.

Mr. Reynolds acknowledges that students have different spending needs, making such estimates difficult.

“We have 25,000 students from all over the country, and it’s a very hard figure to pin down,” he says. But he believes it is an accurate reflection of what students spend.

“For an out-of-state student flying home twice a semester and taking the shuttle to the airport in Atlanta, that’s realistic,” he says. “Not every student is going to do that. But for those that do, it’s a realistic amount.”


Brad Wolverton is a senior writer who covers college sports. Follow him on Twitter @bradwolverton.

Sandhya Kambhampati is a database reporter who analyzes and writes about higher-education numbers. Want to talk about data? Tweet@sandhya__k, or write to her at sandhya@chronicle.com.

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