Inside Auburn’s high cost of attendance

Auburn head coach Gus Malzahn has no idea who Mike Reynolds is, and that’s probably a good thing, but he may soon be sending holiday cards across campus to Reynolds’ office.

Reynolds is Auburn’s Executive Director of Student Financial Services, but to Malzahn and Tigers sports fans, he is more meaningful than ever before. He is in charge of calculating the school’s cost of attendance, which at $5,586 for every two semesters over and above the school’s tuition & fees and room & board ranks second-highest in the nation as of last year.

Recognizing that such a comparatively high figure would suddenly draw scrutiny from outsiders who have never cared to look at cost of attendance figures before they became involved in college athletics, Reynolds, whose primary responsibility is to professionally butt heads with Auburn’s admissions office in order to make the cost of attendance is as high as possible so as to accurately reflect the real cost to perspective and current students, kept the two components (personal and transportation expenses) of Auburn’s cost of attendance the same from 2014-15 to 2015-16 as a means of acting above all reproach.

How Reynolds and those in financial aid offices at colleges and universities throughout the country go about calculating cost of attendance at their institution is based on Department of Education guidelines, but now that these figures are about to become factors in the competitive world of college athletics, they’re naturally under great scrutiny as the 65 schools in the Power 5 conferences are set to begin paying athletes the full cost of attendance on August 1.

Auburn’s Cost of Attendance

Reynolds, who has worked for Auburn for 16 years, said he inherited a cost of attendance figure when he began working for the university and has routinely increased the tuition, board, and personal figures in accordance with the Consumer Price Index, as calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics. Transportation increased in accordance with the CPI inflation rate, and room – being the average cost of all available on-campus housing – at 4,539 beds.

The $5,586 in Auburn’s cost of attendance is divided into $2,728 for personal expenses and $2,858 for transportation, according to the budget Reynolds provided to the Advertiser, and remains unchanged from a year ago.

The personal expense category is designed to cover the costs of cell phones and other electronics and clothes. Though the assumptions involved are not spelled out dollar for dollar, allocating $80 per month towards a cell phone bill leaves a remainder of $220 per month for clothes and other personal items.

As for transportation, Reynolds attempts to encompass those who live on and near campus in Auburn, as well as commuters from Montgomery and Columbus (roughly 100-mile round trips) and Birmingham (over 200 miles round trip), and has to account for some trips home for a school with roughly 40 percent of students coming from out of state, predominantly Georgia.

While a student at Auburn would drive over 2,100 miles per month at a rate of 20 miles per gallon with gas being $3 per gallon to account for the $317.56 budgeted for transportation each month by Reynolds, that doesn’t factor in air fare, which would quickly eat into that figure and factor into the average annual cost.

Auburn’s location in the eastern portion of the state makes it geographically remote for in-state students, much like Knoxville is to the extreme east in Tennessee and Starkville is remote to most of Mississippi; whereas Ohio State is geographically centered and schools in urban settings, such as Boston College and Southern California, may prohibit ownership of a car on campus.

Reynolds makes all of his calculations based on the average of Auburn’s entire undergraduate student body of nearly 26,000 and isn’t even concerned about how the figures apply to the 85 football scholarships or the 13 basketball scholarships. Nearly all of those athletes live in the new $51 million South Donahue Residence Hall, the most expensive hall for on-campus living.

Directly across the street from the athletic complex, the football team eats unlimited meals on campus at the new athletic department funded by Wellness Kitchen that is also across the street from South Donahue.

Auburn’s athletic department had a meeting of all the school’s head coaches on May 12, in which Reynolds explained what the cost of attendance figures are and what they mean as it pertains to athletics going forward. Malzahn did not attend the meeting, but instead practiced his golf swing with Hugh Freeze in Birmingham the day before the Regions Pro-Am at Shoal Creek.

While Malzahn understands the important of the issue of cost of attendance going forward, he is cognizant of the lack of his role in it.

“That’s above our coaches — decisions like that,” Malzahn said. “Everybody’s got their own cost of attendance. We’ll see where that goes in the future.”

Reynolds is concerned financial aid officials at schools with lower cost of attendance figures will now feel pressure, perceived or otherwise, to raise their estimations to better accommodate their athletic departments, but believes he has nothing to be concerned about at Auburn, where senior associate athletic director for compliance, Rich McGlynn, is the point of contact between the financial aid office and the athletic department.

The Cost of Attendance and Recruiting

With Auburn’s cost of attendance figure ranking so comparatively high it will naturally be a factor in recruiting.

“We’re not talking about it enough, to be honest with you,” Auburn wide receivers coach Dameyune Craig said in early May. “But it will focused on from me (during the May evaluation period) and that can be used as an advantage. It is what it is.”

Multiple members of Malzahn’s staff said cost of attendance hasn’t come up much on the recruiting trail so far, even during in-home visits last January, but now that it’s set to start they’ll be emphasizing it moving forward.

“It has not been a big issue – yet – but it’s something that over the course of time we will it a big issue because it’s a good issue for Auburn,” running backs coach Tim Horton said. “It’s good for us. That plays well into our hands.”

Mississippi State is requiring its athletes to complete a personal finance course, which is designed to teach budgeting and basic financial planning, in order to receive their cost of attendance money.

It’s a move that could be copied elsewhere and Auburn defensive line coach Rodney Garner wants to make sure players understand how to manage the money they’ll now be receiving.

“We got to make sure we’re educating the kids,” Garner said. “Some of these kids now make more money than their parents. You’re going to have all this money, how am I going to manage it? I can’t just go out right now and blow it all in one day. Learn how to balance a check book; a lot of them have never had a bank account.”

Transparency within the SEC

Tennessee, Auburn and Mississippi State, which rank first, second and fourth, respectively, in cost of attendance, will have a perceived competitive advantage over schools like Boston College, Kentucky and Georgia, whose figures rank 14th and 13th in the SEC.

It is of little wonder why Kentucky and Georgia co-sponsored the legislative proposal enacted by the SEC during the conference’s spring meetings last month calling for transparency within the conference whereby each school must submit a report to the conference office illustrating “the value of the institution’s ‘other expenses related to cost of attendance’ for the upcoming academic year and describing the methodology for determining such value.”

New SEC commissioner Greg Sankey said the focus is mostly on any “variance” that may occur from the school’s listed cost of attendance, i.e. a player who goes to a school from across the country might be reimbursed a greater amount of transportation than the school’s listed average.

If schools have sudden jumps in their cost of attendance figures going forward, that will likely set off red flags from not only their competitors in athletics, but also the federal government.

“I don’t have any concern at all about our coaches going to financial aid.” Jacobs said. “The integrity of our institution stands on itself. Most definitely I have no concerns at Auburn, and I don’t have any concerns about other institutions.

“There’s a history, so if you see numbers changing dramatically over the next year or two and it’s not consistent, then there will need to be an explanation”.

The disparities in the figures of each school are naturally under scrutiny by coaches, who have long operated under the premise of the NCAA trying to maintain a level playing field but will now have a true dollars and cents factor to discuss, particularly in recruiting.

Coaches who have been outspoken against the disparities from school to school – Alabama’s Nick Saban suggested something along the lines of a “salary cap” and Georgia’s Mark Richt claimed he had lawyers who said it would be “legal” to enact such a cap on the conference level – are grossly misinformed at best, if not ignorant to the legal actions that have already taken place in the Ed O’Bannon case, which is under appeal, but is largely responsible for the covering of full cost of attendance being enacted.

“You can’t create a system that really almost can promote fraud,” Saban said, “because every institution should do a good job of saying this is what our cost of attendance is, but when we don’t have a cap that makes it equal for everyone, it really is going to go against all the things that we’ve tried to do in the NCAA in terms of having parity for players in terms of what their scholarship (is), what you’re allowed to give them and all those types of things.”

Richt called the disparities in cost of attendance from school to school “not a good thing at all” and said he was “curious to know how (schools) get to those numbers; I’m sure a lot of people are curious about that,” calling into question the integrity of calculations made under federal guidelines long before the O’Bannon case or the whether the Power 5 conferences ever had autonomy to vote to cover cost of attendance.

The irony of Saban, the highest paid coach in college football at over $7 million last year, and Richt, whose $3.314 million ranked 17th nationally, asking for caps on the amount of compensation available to players is also not lost amid their criticisms.

Former SEC commissioner Mike Slive advocated for full cost of attendance long before the O’Bannon decision was reached. Slive and Sankey met with the SEC’s coaches during Spring Meetings to address their concerns but emphasize the legal limitations involved.

“We are constrained by the law, whether the law is statutory or the law is created by the judicial branch,” Slive said before retiring on June 1. “We understand their really compelling concern about how it affects recruiting, but we just try to explain to them that this is something we’ve always wanted, going way back, we’ve always wanted full cost of attendance”.

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*Featured Photo (above) credit to USA TODAY Sports

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