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Montana State in works to ‘potentially’ offer cost of attendance

MSU v Austin Peay (copy)

Montana State players hit the field before an FCS playoff game against Austin Peay on Dec. 13 at Bobcat Stadium.

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Montana State wasn’t playing by the same set of standards as its opponent, at least not in its coach’s eyes.

Before the Bobcats played in the FCS semifinals in December at North Dakota State, which has now won eight of the last nine FCS titles, MSU head coach Jeff Choate lamented the dominance of the Bison. Specifically, he believed NDSU’s offering of cost of attendance funds to athletes was vital in creating imbalance favoring programs that did so. MSU and NDSU, he thought, weren’t playing on an equal level.

The Bobcats may be closer to neutralizing that advantage.

MSU athletic director Leon Costello told the Chronicle his department is working on implementing plans to offer a form of cost of attendance to its athletes, saying MSU “potentially” could provide it in the 2020-21 school year.

Considering the preliminary stage of the plan, Costello did not provide full details on exactly how much MSU would spend on each athlete, team or even total. He said the school would take a yearly approach and examine how much could feasibly be spent, all in hopes of growing incrementally.

“It might be a little ambitious,” Costello said, “but we’re looking that quickly just because, look, if others are doing it and we’re not, we’re falling behind. It comes to be a competitive disadvantage for us. We need to act as quickly as we can so hopefully we can get it all solidified and finalized and move forward as quickly as July 1.”

MSU v Portland State Men's Hoops (copy)

Montana State senior Harald Frey dribbles past a Portland State defender Jan. 11 at Worthington Arena.

Cost of attendance is an NCAA stipulation that allows athletic programs to pay athletes for college expenses beyond scholarships, which cover things like tuition, room, board and books. This additional money can fund transportation, supplies and miscellaneous expenses tied to attending college.

The amount paid varies on the athletic department. Cost of attendance also is paid in correspondence with how much a particular athlete already has in scholarship. For example, if a volleyball player is on a half scholarship, she can only be paid half of the cost of attendance.

Costello views cost of attendance as an extension of a scholarship or another form of financial aid. The athletic department will fundraise for it, he said, so MSU would rely on donations rather than state funds. Costello added MSU’s possible offerings “could mean a lot of different things,” meaning partial cost of attendance may only be given at MSU initially.

Montana State spent $5.04 million in athletically-related student aid in the 2017-18 school year, according to U.S. Department of Education data, with $3.06 million going to male sports. As a whole, MSU teams spent $21.9 million, football spending $7.4 million, and brought in $22.3 million, with football making $9.1 million, in revenue.

Costello said he’s discussed cost of attendance possibilities since he first arrived in 2016, not just when Choate brought it up a month ago. He said his department carefully pondered the financial viability and the right steps in order to do so. He also emphasized not wanting the additional financial aid to disrupt the rest of MSU’s dealings.

“I think our department’s moving in such a great direction and actually pretty fast. We’ve been able to make a lot of changes and adjustments to fit with the changing landscape,” Costello said.

“Our foundation we already have in place. So this needs to be additional, and we need to treat it as additional so it won’t affect the things we’re currently doing.”

MSU Football v. Norfolk State (copy)

Montana State head coach Jeff Choate watches from the sidelines on Sept. 21 at Bobcat Stadium.

Costello would dictate how much each team can spend on cost of attendance while abiding by NCAA rules. From there, Bobcat coaches will decide how to divvy up that money, similar to scholarship allocations.

In an interview with the Chronicle, Choate said MSU’s financial spending should prioritize people. He called the university’s athletic budget “one big bucket,” meaning every team and facet of the department has a share in it. But MSU, he said, needs to prioritize its values and resources, or in other words, its money.

“Every entity of this university deserves and needs more. So we’ve just got to get in line and prove our value and make our case,” Choate said. “That’s the way I see it, and that’s my job as the head coach is to prioritize our people and do everything we can to keep good people.”

MSU v UNC Women's Hoops (copy)

Montana State senior Fallyn Freije takes a shot from the post against Northern Colorado on Jan. 2 at Worthington Arena.

Costello also stressed cost of attendance aid will have to follow Title IX, a law designed to ensure both male and female sports are treated equally, including financially. Costello said MSU must provide cost of attendance for male and female sports on the same percentage basis as scholarships.

MSU head women’s basketball coach Tricia Binford, who just signed a three-year contract extension last week, called the potential for cost of attendance “a huge addition” especially as a mid-major in the Big Sky.

“Student-athletes, there’s a lot of responsibility for them to be here,” Binford said. “I just think it presents another opportunity for kids to be able to get home and just get extra money to be able to survive. I just think it’s a pretty amazing opportunity.”

MSU Football v. Sac State, First Half (copy)

Montana State quarterback Troy Andersen runs the ball against Sacramento State on Oct. 12 at Bobcat Stadium.

Because cost of attendance will be provided by private donations, MSU will have to raise even more funds than before. This poses as another obstacle.

According to Montana State’s athletics website, the Bobcat Club, which solicits scholarship funds, raised $1.21 million in 2017. That was fourth in the Big Sky not including Weber State. Montana raised $2.3 million.

In October, MSU announced it had collected $18 million through 500 unique donations for its 40,000-square-foot Bobcat Athletics Complex and academic center in the Brick Breeden Fieldhouse. Afterward, Costello wanted MSU and donors to “take a breath” and relish in that accomplishment.

However, Binford and Costello were optimistic about fundraising efforts for cost of attendance. Costello called Bobcat faithful “some of the best fans around.” He pointed to MSU’s athletic successes and Bobcat teams’ recent cumulative 3.27 grade-point average as sparks of excitement for his department.

Binford said booster groups like Fastbreak Club that supports Bobcat women’s basketball are heavily invested in the success of programs. Those involved connect with the players, Binford said, so they are enthusiastic about assisting them.

Costello believes the usual donors will be dependable because “Bobcat athletics is part of their DNA” but added Bozeman’s population growth will open avenues for additional fundraising.

“You’ve got to be able to find the money to provide, right?” Binford said. “You’ve got to have people who invest in your student-athletes in that way. I think, Bozeman, we have a community and support of people who have backed our programs and have had a consistent pattern of going above and beyond.”

MSU Men's Hoops Scrimmage

TOP: Montana State players hit the field before an FCS playoff game against Austin Peay on Dec. 13 at Bobcat Stadium. MIDDLE: MSU head coach Danny Sprinkle talks to his team during a timeout during a game against Sacramento State on Dec. 28 at Worthington Arena. ABOVE: Athletic director Leon Costello watches the Late Night at the Brick scrimmages Oct. 18.

Binford and Choate both spoke about cost of attendance’s impact on recruiting. NDSU AD Matt Larsen also cited that as a major reason for offering cost of attendance. Back in 2015, only one other FCS mid-major was offering it.

Schools from nearby conferences such as the Missouri Valley, where NDSU offers full cost of attendance which was up to up to $3,400 per full scholarship in 2016, or even higher-tier teams from the Pac-12 and Mountain West offer the additional financial aid. For a talented high school athlete considering which program to play for, additional cash can easily factor into the decision.

Against those teams, cost of attendance placed MSU at a disadvantage. In fact, Binford said a majority of programs she’s recruiting against offer cost of attendance.

“It would level the playing field in that regard,” Binford said. “That’s a piece of it that we want to be competitive, and I think that’s a great step for us.”

MSU v Sacramento State Mens Basketball (copy)

Montana State head coach Danny Sprinkle talks to his team during a timeout in a Dec. 28 game against Sacramento State.

When the Bison learned of Choate’s remarks in December, they used it as motivation. After a quarterback sack, Missouri Valley defensive player of the year Derrek Tuszka turned to the Bobcat sideline and rubbed his hands together as if making money fall from his fingertips.

Choate didn’t understand. While the playing field wasn’t even to him, he was more so making a case for his program to reach NDSU’s level and that of other FCS schools.

Offering cost of attendance, Choate hopes, would allow Montana State to know and sustain success like that of a top-notch athletic department.

“If we truly want to compete at that level and that stage,” Choate said, “then we need to step up to the plate and do some of the things that they’re doing to support their student-athletes.”

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Colton Pool can be reached at cpool@dailychronicle.com or 406-582-2690. Follow him on Twitter @CPoolReporter.