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Athletic Scholarships for College Students

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Every year, millions of parents pay to place their children in youth sports programs in hopes the child eventually will develop the skills need to earn a coveted athletic scholarship that pays for college.

The NCAA has some sobering news for those parents: just over 1% of high school athletes (1.3%, according to statistics from the NCAA) receive full or partial athletic scholarships. And just as important, those scholarships are not guaranteed for four years.

That means that if your child joined a youth sports club with 100 members, it’s likely only one of them will be good enough to get an athletic scholarship.

And the other 99 probably will spend enough money on uniforms, equipment, registration fees, hotel rooms, food, training and other miscellaneous expenses to fund a very comfortable four-year existence at any public university.

In other words, parents stand a much better chance of covering the cost of a child’s college education with monthly contributions to a 529 savings plan than with monthly contributions to sports clubs, coaches and academies in hopes of receiving a college scholarship.

It’s worth noting that NCAA rules mandate that college athletes spend no more than 20 hours per week practicing their sport. However, athletes themselves report that they spend 34-39 hours a week. That’s 34-39 hours a week during the season and during the offseason playing and training for a sport, while juggling class and social schedules at the same time.


NCAA Average Men’s Scholarships
Schools awarding scholarshipsAverage awards per schoolAverage value per award
Football — FBS12988$36,070
Football — FCS12581$20,706
Ice Hockey6022$31,756
Swimming & Diving13522$16,695
Track & Field31629$11,260
NCAA Average Woman’s Scholarships
Schools awarding scholarshipsAverage awards per schoolAverage value per award
Field Hockey7820$18,331
Ice Hockey3620$41,693
Swimming & Diving19625$18,794
Track & Field34832$14,574

Nearly $3 Billion in Athletic Scholarships Available

However, if your child is among the elite in their chosen sport, there is an incredible of amount of financial aid available. Division I and Division II schools provided more than $3 billion in athletic scholarships in 2017 to just over 175,000 athletes. That averages out to $17,142 per athlete, but there are a couple of catches to that equation, the most obvious one being that not every athlete is going to get $17,142.

While most scholarship money comes from the college itself, there are some ways for student-athletes to receive funding from private sources. Many athletic departments have endowment scholarships set up by former athletes or alumni who support a specific sport or cause.

For example, the Jay Cutler Athletic Scholarship award five, $5,000 awards to incoming freshmen with Type 1 diabetes, who will be playing a competitive sport in college.

Another example is the Chick Evans Caddie Scholarship that goes toward tuition and housing expenses for more than 200 recipients at eligible universities or the “No Bull Sports” scholarship is a $5,000 award for women trying to achieve academic and athletic goals.

There also are awards sponsored by individuals or companies representing a region of the country or state such as the Hy Zolet Student Athlete scholarship awarded by the CollegeBound Foundation to athletes in Baltimore or the HP Hood Sportsmanship Award of $5,000 available to residents of Connecticut, Maine, Massachusetts, New Hampshire, Rhode Island and Vermont.

“Head Count” Scholarships vs. “Equivalency” Scholarships

The NCAA defines a full scholarship as covering the costs of tuition, fees, room, board and course-related books, but only a very small number of college athletes receive all of that.

Full rides are guaranteed in only six Division I sports. These are known as “head count” sports and include football and men’s basketball, plus women’s basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and tennis. If you are offered a scholarship in one of the “head count” sports by a Division I school, it is a full ride.

Athletes in the remaining sports compete for what is known as “equivalency” or partial scholarships. Each sport has a specific number of scholarships available and a specific roster size that can be accommodated with those scholarships. The sport’s head coach can divide those scholarships in halves, thirds or even quarters to fill out their roster.

For example, men’s hockey can award 18 scholarships, while track and lacrosse give 12.6 and baseball 11.7. The average roster sizes for hockey was 28, track is 40, lacrosse 45 and baseball 35. Simple math – 18 scholarships divided among 28 players in hockey – says that most of that sport’s athletes are on partial scholarships. It is rare for even one athlete to receive a full scholarship in these sports.

The same is true for women’s “equivalency” sports. For example, women’s hockey awards 18 scholarships to an average roster of 24 players. Track and field divides 18 scholarships among 40 athletes; lacrosse has 12 scholarships for a 30-woman roster and softball splits 12 scholarships among its 21 rostered players.

Students who receive partial athletic scholarships must make up the difference in the cost of their education through grant aid money, academic scholarships, personal funds, student loans and/or work-study opportunities.

So, the next time you hear youth sports club coaches or administrators boasting about the number of scholarship players they have on their teams, realize that most of them probably are receiving 50% or less of what a full scholarship allows. They might get their tuition paid and maybe room or food, or more likely their books, but it’s extremely rare to have all of that paid.

Other Sources for Athletic Scholarship Funding

There are two more classes of college that athletes can attend and receive financial aid, the NAIA and NJCAA.

The NAIA stands for National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. It is a group of schools with small athletic programs that focus on “character-driven athletics.” NAIA schools allow 60,000 students to participate in sports at the college level and award scholarships valued at $450 million.

The NJCAA is a group of 525 community college and junior college schools, meaning two-year schools where many athletes go to improve their academic standing, as well as their athletic skills. The NJCAA has three tier levels of competition with athletic scholarships offered in the top tier, tuition and room offered at the second level and no scholarships at the lowest level.

How Do You Get Recruited by Colleges?

While individual schools are responsible for recruiting students for their athletic programs, the complex rules that govern athletic scholarships are promulgated by  independent, national organizations, including the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), and the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA).

In addition, federal law — specifically Title IX of the Education Amendments Act of 1972 — mandates that athletic scholarships be distributed in an “equitable fashion” between the sexes. Consequently, although men still receive a greater proportion of the athletic scholarship money, over the past few decades, a considerable amount of financial aid has been made accessible for women with athletic ability.

Students – and their parents — hoping to earn an athletic scholarship face a complicated array of challenges in this highly competitive arena. Before pursuing an athletic scholarship, it’s important to have a basic understanding of what athletic scholarships are and how they are awarded.

Classifications of College Athletic Programs

College athletic programs are classified according to a school’s size, budget, athletic facilities, competitiveness and the extent to which it can award scholarships based on athletic ability.

The NCAA recognizes three divisions and supplies some of the funds that schools offer their student-athletes:
  • Division I – D-I colleges and universities have the most competitive athletic programs and award a lot of scholarships. The 346 colleges and universities classified as D-I get the bulk of the NCAA funding. The NCAA says that 106,536 student athletes received financial aid of some kind at D-I schools.
  • Division II – D-II colleges and universities are typically smaller and less competitive, offering fewer scholarships than D-I schools. There are 307 colleges and universities classified as D-II and 71,306 student received financial aid in 2016.
  • Division III – D-III schools are less competitive, although many have robust programs and field competitive teams. The NCAA prohibits D-III schools from offering athletic scholarships. There are 439 institutions classified as D-III with 187,800 student athletes.

The NAIA schools tend to be smaller than those in the NCAA, but some have strong programs that offer $450 million annually in athletic scholarships. In 2017, the NAIA had 250 member colleges and universities.

Many two-year community and junior colleges also award some athletic scholarships to student-athletes enrolled at the NJCAA’s 525 member schools.

NCAA Athletic Scholarship Rules

Each year, there are roughly 180,000 athletic scholarships available for the NCAA’s D-I and D-II schools. The NCAA requires that a student-athlete meet certain academic requirements in high school, before becoming eligible for an athletic scholarship. Their amateur status must also be certified by the NCAA Eligibility Center.

The average athletic scholarship for all sports in Division I is approximately $14,270 a year for men and $15,162 for women. In Division II sports, the numbers drop to $5,548 for men and $6,814 for women.

It is important to understand that no scholarship is guaranteed for a full four years. Under NCAA rules, scholarships must be renewed every year and depend upon a student’s obligation to actively participate in the sport. They can be revoked for a variety of reasons, including poor performance on the playing field or in the classroom.

Collegiate Recruiting

Before being granted an athletic scholarship, a student-athlete must first be noticed by an interested college or university. The best players are typically pursued by the schools that have enough money to able to scour the country for talent and can offer superior athletes the most attractive financial packages. The NCAA has strict policies that govern how and when coaches can contact these students, and those rules differ from sport to sport.

The majority of players have to be proactive in seeking out available opportunities if they hope to continue playing their sport at the college level.

These students can help themselves in the following ways:
  • Most college websites have recruitment pages where prospective athletes can signify their interest in participating in the school’s athletic program(s). These forms need to be filled out when applying to the school.
  • Students should contact coaches directly during their junior and senior years in high school and try to visit them on their campuses during college tours.
  • Participating in a skills camp that some schools offer during the off-season lets coaches know that a student is interested in that school’s program.
  • Recommendations from high school and/or travel team coaches are helpful.
  • Skills videos that are sent to chosen schools allow coaches to ascertain an athlete’s talent and potential.

Today, many high school athletes secure the services of professional recruitment companies that help guide them and their families through the marketing and promotion process that has become commonplace in the world of college sports. In addition, many books and websites offer tips, recommendations and sample letters to coaches.

Students who are not recruited by a school may be able to join a team as a “walk on” during the open tryouts that most sports are required to have. If accepted, they can then apply for an athletic scholarship in subsequent years.

Ivy League schools, and all NCAA D-III schools, are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships. However, if a student is planning to attend any one of these institutions, and the coaches view them as potential contributors to their programs, they may be awarded other types of merit or need-based scholarships. These scholarships may be larger than the athletic awards offered by D-I and D-II schools.

Letters of Intent

Top athletes who are the recipients of athletic scholarships will sign a National Letter of Intent (NLI), which is a binding agreement between them and the institutions they promise to attend. An NLI commits a prospective student-athlete to go to a particular school and play there for one academic year. In return, the school agrees to provide financial aid for that time period.

Should a student renege on an NLI and accept an offer from another institution, severe penalties can accrue, including being barred from all athletic competition at the new school for an entire year.

College Sports Scholarships Available For Men And Women
SportDivision IDivision IINAIANJCAA
Basketball (m)15101115
Basketball (w)1510110
Beach Volleyball (w)3500
Bowling (m)3500
Bowling (w)4.54.508
Equestrian (w)151500
Fencing (m)4.54.500
Fencing (w)54.500
Football (m)85362485
Field Hockey (w)126.300
Golf (m)4.53.6585
Golf (w)4.53.6585
Gymnastics (m)6.35.400
Gymnastics (m)121200
Ice Hockey (m)1813.5016
Ice Hockey (w)1813.500
Lacrosse (m)12.610.8020
Lacrosse (w)129.9020
Rifle (m & w)3.63.600
Rowing (w)202000
Rugby (w)121200
Skiing (m)6.36.300
Skiing (w)76.300
Soccer (m)9.991218
Soccer (w)1491218
Softball (w)127.21024
Swimming & Diving (m)9.98.1815
Swimming & Diving (w)148.1815
Tennis (m)4.54.559
Tennis (w)8659
Track & Field (m)12.612.61220
Track & Field (w)1812.61220
Volleyball (m)4.54.500
Water Polo (m)128814
Water Polo (w)8800
Wrestling (m)9.99816

About The Author

Bill Fay

Bill “No Pay” Fay has lived a meager financial existence his entire life. He started writing/bragging about it in 2012, helping birth into existence as the site’s original “Frugal Man.” Prior to that, he spent more than 30 years covering the high finance world of college and professional sports for major publications, including the Associated Press, New York Times and Sports Illustrated. His interest in sports has waned some, but he is as passionate as ever about not reaching for his wallet. Bill can be reached at [email protected].


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