This story has been revised to reflect the following correction: All Big East schools are offering stipends to men’s and women’s basketball players, but some are offering them to athletes in other sports. An earlier version of this story was incorrect on this point. 

One of the most significant changes in the history of college sports is quietly taking place this spring, as athletics departments planning budgets contend with new rules that allow schools to pay athletes thousands of dollars in stipends to cover the incidental costs of college.

The new “cost-of-attendance” stipends — money for gas, groceries, travel home and other similar expenses incurred by college students — are optional, and based on school financial aid office estimates. They vary widely between schools, but generally fall in the range of $2,000 to $5,000.

In and around Washington, how colleges are handling the stipends provides a microcosm of how this change is playing out across Division I, the financially disparate top tier of college athletics that includes wealthy powerhouses such as Texas and smaller institutions such as Howard. Many big schools in the so-called “power five conferences” are giving the extra spending money to all scholarship athletes, while some schools in smaller conferences are providing the stipends only to basketball players, or are declining to offer them altogether.

In this region, Virginia and Maryland — both members of financially flush power conferences — are giving stipends to all scholarship athletes. Georgetown, George Washington and George Mason will give the stipends only to men’s and women’s basketball players. And Howard and American, the smallest local schools in Division I, are not adding the stipends for any of their athletes, although American Athletics Director Billy Walker said his school was “exploring our options.”

“Everybody is a little apprehensive to see how this will play out,” Walker said. “I’m concerned that it will cost some schools so much to keep up that they have to drop other sports.”

That concern was part of the reason this change is happening this year, and not four years ago. In 2011, the NCAA briefly allowed schools to offer these stipends, but more than 100 Division I schools objected, some citing concerns similar to Walker’s, and the rule was overturned.

That reversal, in part, motivated leadership of the bigger conferences to push for last year’s change in the NCAA’s structure that, essentially, lets the power five conferences make some of their own rules. One of the first changes instituted was this new stipend.

Virginia will give $3,180 to in-state undergraduate scholarship athletes, and between $3,470 and $4,450 for out-of-state students, depending on where they live, according to Jim Daves, assistant athletics director.

Maryland financial aid officers have not finalized their estimates yet, said Senior Associate Athletics Director Marcus Wilson, but using last year’s numbers, the school would have awarded stipends ranging from about $3,200 to $3,800.

The extra stipends will cost Maryland and Virginia an extra $700,000 to $1 million or so yearly, but neither school’s officials said they expected to have to cut elsewhere to come up with the money.

Schools outside the power five conferences, who can’t count on guaranteed millions in football-related television revenue, are approaching the stipends with more trepidation.

Athletic directors at George Washington and George Mason said they’d like to give the money to all athletes, but started with just basketball. Both schools are in the Atlantic 10, and said they voted along with their peers earlier this year to mandate schools give stipends to men’s and women’s basketball players.

“You’d like to do it across the board, but that’s a whole other conversation,” said Brad Edwards, athletics director at George Mason, where the 28 men’s and women’s basketball scholarship players will each get stipends of about $3,600, adding about $100,000 to the athletic department’s budget.

George Washington hasn’t finalized its stipend amount for next year, but Athletics Director Pat Nero thinks it will be about $3,000 per player, costing the school about $80,000 to $85,000.

“Men’s and women’s basketball are the sports we emphasize most in our conference. We wanted to make sure we didn’t fall behind,” Nero said. “We just weren’t sure of the landscape nationally. We wanted to make sure this did not become a competitive disadvantage.”

In response to questions, Georgetown Athletics Director Lee Reed emailed a written statement explaining the school’s decision to give stipends to just basketball players. Reed declined to disclose exactly how much Georgetown’s stipends will be, but the school’s financial aid office estimates the amount at about $2,600.

“As college athletics has gone through this reformation period over the last several years, Georgetown has said all along that we would remain competitive nationally as we have throughout our rich history,” Reed wrote.

To critics of amateurism such as economist Andy Schwarz, the ease with which schools added stipends undercuts the argument made by some schools in 2011 that such stipends could lead schools to eliminate unprofitable sports.

“The rhetoric that you hear a business say before a fixed price changes is just that: rhetoric. The actions that you’re seeing now are more telling,” said Schwarz, who uses clinical economic terms when discussing college sports that would make some school officials cringe.

“This is a great natural experiment. We’re getting to see change in an economic environment and see how firms react,” Schwarz said of the new stipends. “We’re learning a ton about the real preferences of schools with where they decide to put their money.”