Athletic Scholarship Reality Check
I don’t know if you have heard, but there are eighth graders getting athletic scholarship offers from some pretty big name colleges. The future football quarterbacks get the most press but it’s happening in softball, basketball, and soccer and at ever younger ages. If you hear about this while driving your athlete to practice, you might start thinking that you’ve got the cost of college covered. With all the work your daughter puts in, surely she’ll manage to snag one of those scholarships you keep hearing about.
Well it’s time for a reality check. Getting a college athletic scholarship is not a plan for paying for college.
How Many College Athletes Even Get Scholarships?
The reality is that playing in college is not the same thing as getting an athletic scholarship. The largest division in the NCAA, Division 3, doesn’t even allow athletic scholarships. That means at least a third of all NCAA athletes are not on scholarship.
Furthermore, the number of scholarships are limited by sport. In most cases, the number of scholarships available doesn’t match the number of players it takes to field a team. Even if the sport allows for a number of scholarships that matches the number of players, colleges don’t always fully fund their allowed scholarships. In other words, a college may be allowed to offer 11.7 baseball scholarships but may only fund 6.
Full Rides Aren’t Common in Most Sports
The reality is also that most scholarships outside headcounts sports, are not going to be full-rides. Coaches are allowed to split scholarships among players in equivalency sports. This means one player may get a 40% scholarship and another will get 60%. This can leave quite a bit of tuition left to pay.
The table below shows the maximum number of scholarships by sport. The numbers are for the entire team, not per class. Yellow indicates headcount sports.
Pay Attention to the Numbers
Remember, all of this assumes that the athlete actually makes it to the college level. The NCAA has a table showing the percentage of high school athletes that end up playing at the college level. With the exception of Lacrosse and Hockey, it’s less than 10%.
Parents and athletes need to remember that not all colleges offer all sports. A higher percentage of lacrosse players may be playing at the D1 level than baseball but there 299 D1 baseball programs and only 71 D1 lacrosse programs. If an athletic scholarship is a requirement, you significantly limit your choices of colleges.
Another overlooked detailed is that not all athletic scholarships are guaranteed for four-years. It’s only recently that some colleges and conferences have started offering four-year scholarships. Previously, scholarships were for only one year and no one talked about the number that weren’t renewed.
The early recruiting phenomenon seems to have added another layer of uncertainty surrounding athletic scholarships. I know, it seems like it should be the exact opposite. After all, if you commit to a college as a sophomore, you don’t have to worry about recruiting and you know how much of your tuition will be covered.
The problem is that these agreements are based on verbal commitments since recruits can’t sign anything official until their senior year. At first, this wasn’t a big deal when it was just outstanding juniors that were giving verbal commitments. Since the numbers involved were relatively small, no one was willing to risk “decommitting” because of dire warnings and threats of what might happen.
But when the major conferences started asking for commitments from sophomores on a regular basis, the reliability of verbal commitments started declining. Things can dramatically change physically and academically for a 15 year old. So it’s not surprising to hear about coaches who find themselves “short” on scholarships funds as the player’s senior year approaches.
Then there’s the problem of what happens if the coach leaves before the student ever gets around to signing a National Letter of Intent (NLI)? Will the new coach honor the verbal commitments? Will the player still want to attend the college? Given the turnover of coaches, this can easily happen.
There is one “good” thing about early commitments. In most sports, if your son or daughter hasn’t heard from a college coach by their sophomore year, chances are they aren’t going to play at the top D1 schools.
You should also take it as a major wake-up call. The reality is that recruiting for the vast majority of athletes needs to be initiated by the student. Players and their families must be proactive in contacting coaches, most who do not have large recruiting budgets.
Despite the fact that athletic scholarships are being used to pay for a college education, too many athletes and parents treat academics as a secondary consideration. The reality is that unless you’re a blue chip, nationally ranked player, grades matter.
Players need to do everything within their power to make it as easy as possible for coaches to recruit them. They need to understand that when coaches have two players of equal talent, they’re going to opt for the one with the better academic record. They really don’t want to worry about getting a player through admissions and staying academically eligible so why take a weaker student?
Unfortunately, players often judge their talent based strictly on their experiences. The ones expecting an athletic scholarship are usually the best player on the team. And they’re probably listed as one of the best in their city or district. So they may think that since they’re so much better than their peers, they don’t need to do anything but the minimal classwork to get by.
The reality is that their competition pool is much bigger than they realize. Players need to take a look the roosters of the colleges they’re interested in. This will indicate what sort of geographic region the coach uses for recruiting.
And they should pay attention to something else–how many of the player’s names do they recognize? Again, this should give them an idea that they really don’t know all the factors they’re competing against, including grades.
Far too many parents are using the expectation of an athletic scholarship as a substitution for meaningful college financial planning. Yet even the most sought after, gifted athlete can have a career ending injury at any time. Players burn out or can’t handle the stress of keeping up with the academics and the demands of college athletics. There are all kinds of reasons why a player may stop playing their sport. Therefore, if an athletic scholarship is plan A for paying for college, families must have a viable plan B in place.
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