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Athletic scholarships are an appealing source of college money, so it’s no surprise that parents dream of their children winning coveted full-ride scholarships to college. In fact, there are many parents who secretly “size up” the possibility of their children receiving sports scholarships when kids are still in grade school. Others chat online about what sport is “easiest” for kids to pursue a sports scholarship. Take fencing, for example.
If this is you — please pause. Not only do children’s interests change — by the time your little one is 18, they might not be interested in athletics — but having unrealistic expectations for athletic scholarships can derail parents from creating an effective college-savings plan.
That said, if you feel confident in your child’s athletic abilities and think there’s a good shot they’ll reap the benefits come time to go to college, let’s dive into the basics of athletic scholarships.
Athletic Scholarship Categories
There are six NCAA sports where athletes have the best chance of receiving a full-ride* award. They are found within the Division I schools that tend to offer the biggest sports programs or which aspire to have a national reputation. They’re called Head-Count Sports.
However, there’s a caveat. Athletes who compete in one of the six head-count sports will either capture a full-ride or nothing.
Here are the six sports and the total number of scholarships.
*A full-ride scholarship in the NCAA system covers tuition and fees, room, board and required course-related books.
Because full-ride scholarships are few and far between, most students attending a Division I or Division II school receive a partial scholarship, such as a tuition and fees scholarship.
For these partial scholarships, students and their families don’t have to fret if the cost of tuition or fees increase in the years attending the college, as these scholarships often do not come with a number. The actual award amount is based on the cost of attendance for that school.
This also means that a student-athlete attending an in-state public college may receive an award that has less value, because the cost of attendance is lower, but the percentage of expenses covered is the same.
Athletic scholarships are not available for Division III players, but about 80% of D3 athletes receive some form of need-based scholarship or grant. The average amount for those awards is $17,000.
Whether or not a child will qualify for an athletic scholarship will depend on many factors. Here are some of the things that you should know about these awards.
Athletic Scholarships Aren’t Plentiful
Each year, schools in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) award roughly $3 billion in athletic scholarships. While that may seem like a lot, scholarships aren’t nearly as plentiful or as lucrative as many families assume. About two percent of graduating high school athletes win sports scholarships every year at NCAA institutions.
And, more importantly, athletic scholarships are typically not as generous as need-based financial aid and merit scholarships.
Athletic Scholarships Aren’t A Four-Year Guarantee
With the exception of major conferences (Power 5), most athletic scholarships are guaranteed only for one year, but are designed to be renewable. Renewal requirements vary by school and award, but they usually include:
- A minimum GPA.
- A minimum number of credits per year.
- Zero academic or conduct issues.
The student-athlete is also required to play the sport associated with the scholarship, but it’s not always that simple. You see, coaches are no different than any other employee expected to garner specific results. If a team underperforms for a period of time, coaches can lose their jobs. Therefore, student-athletes on scholarship are expected to fulfill expectations at the coach’s discretion.
With that said, the pressure to maintain athletic scholarships can distract stressed students from what should be their main goal — a degree.
Athleticism Can Be a Hook
Being an athlete can boost a teenager’s admission chances because all schools, regardless of whether they offer scholarships, desire strong sports programs. The child doesn’t have to be a superstar athlete to increase his or her chances of admission. And the child doesn’t need to capture a sports scholarship to ultimately make college more affordable.
That said, being a gifted athlete dramatically improves a person’s odds of getting into some of the nation’s most elite colleges. At Ivy League schools, recruited athletes are four times more likely than other applicants to be accepted, according to Reclaiming the Game: College Sports and Educational Values.
- Don’t rely solely on athletic scholarships. Sports scholarships can be hard to come by, and many Division I and Division II student-athletes use other means of financial aid to cover costs that their sports-related scholarships don’t. If a student-athlete decides to quit the sports team, or is removed from it, they will have to rely on other forms of aid.
- Academics come first. Ideally, a family should first identify schools that would be a good match academically and then inquire about a sport. Getting a good college education is more important than playing a sport.
Sports are great, as they can teach children many valuable life lessons. But don’t sign your child up for an expensive travel team or schedule in a pricey private coach without understanding the realities of athletic scholarships. After all, sports don’t teach children how to finance a college’s tuition and fees, should the going get tough.