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Recent NCAA rules changes allow schools to cover the full cost of attending college. Schools are taking advantage, and they increased spending on athletics-related financial aid by 8.8%
USA TODAY Sports

During the 2015-16 school year, benefits for major-college athletes jolted upward in ways that NCAA schools had seen as financially and philosophically ruinous less than a decade earlier.

The University of Arkansas athletics program barely blinked.

It added about $1 million in expenses to take advantage of a new NCAA rule that allowed scholarships to cover the full cost of attending college, according to information provided by the athletics department to USA TODAY Sports. Not including a $7 million investment in a new sports nutrition center, it also again paid about $1.5 million to feed athletes meals and snacks that NCAA rules had prohibited until April 2014.

In other words, from those two items alone, Razorbacks athletes were actually pretty competitive with their coaches and administrators in terms of getting more from the school over the past two years.

And when the year was over, Arkansas still had finished in the black by more than $19.3 million — an operating surplus that was nearly $2.3 million greater than the surplus it had produced in 2014-15.

That, in turn, had enabled the athletics department to spend more than $20.7 million in cash during 2015-16 on capital projects. Among them were the installation of new video boards at four facilities, the construction of parking lots that are used by the department on game days and by the university community otherwise, and the start-up costs for a $160 million football stadium renovation.

Arkansas’s athletics program did all of this, effectively, without help from the university’s general fund or student fees; it received $2 million from the university but transferred an equal amount back in addition to what it paid for scholarships and various university services.

Like other Southeastern Conference schools, Arkansas feasted on a substantial increase in television rights revenue connected to the burgeoning SEC Network. Altogether, 22 other public school athletics programs — all in the SEC, Big Ten or Big 12 — finished their 2016 fiscal years having met the NCAA’s benchmark for financial self-sufficiency, according to a USA TODAY Sports analysis of the athletics financial information schools annually report to the association.

An athletics program is deemed self-sufficient if the operating revenue it generates through its activities, including ticket sales, donations, TV rights and other income shared by conferences and the NCAA, exceed its operating expenses.

Even with the schools’ additional spending on athletes’ cost of attendance and their additional meals and snacks, the total of 23 “self-sufficient” programs…