Athletic Scholarships: What You Need To Know

  • There is no way around it, college is expensive. In fact, when it comes to deciding which colleges to attend – financial considerations are often a family’s primary determining factor. There are two main ways of offsetting the significant costs associated with attending a college or university: need-based financial aid and merit-based aid. Merit-based aid most commonly consists of academic or athletic scholarships, or some combination of the two.

    Athletic scholarships are non-guaranteed, financial aid agreements between a college and an athlete. These scholarships are awarded to athletes based on a coach’s perception of their athletic ability. Athletic scholarships usually fall into two groups: Equivalency, consisting of partial scholarships to players, or as Head-Count, which consist of full scholarships. Athletic scholarships are offered at the NCAA DI, DII, NAIA and Junior College levels. Colleges and Universities at the NCAA DIII level are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships but do offer other forms of financial aid for student-athletes.

    Athletic scholarships are a valuable tool for aspiring student-athletes to offset the cost of attending a college, however, they are very competitive. Below are some general facts pertaining to student-athletes and athletic scholarships.

    1. Athletic Scholarships Are Numerous But Competitive

    $1 billion in athletic scholarship money is awarded annually to student-athletes. College sport creates a pathway to college for many aspiring student-athletes. This is true for athletes of differing levels of ability, due to the wide range of competition within NCAA Division I, II and III schools. This level of competition varies significantly between as well as within NCAA Divisions. The data below illustrates the estimated number of college athletes and colleges/universities within each NCAA Division. The final column shows the percentage of athletes within each Division that receives athletic aid in some form (or alternative forms of aid for Division III schools who aren’t able to give athletic scholarships).

    Division Student-athletes Colleges & Universities
    Athletic Scholarships
    I 179,200 351 59%
    II 121,900 308 62%
    III 190,900 443 80% (Financial Aid)

    Despite the fairly large number of available athletic scholarships, these scholarships are highly competitive. Every year more and more athletes are competing for the same limited number of roster spots. It is interesting to note that there is often more financial assistance in DIII schools. The data below shows the large number of high school athletes, the number of NCAA athletes, and the likelihood of transitioning from one to the other by securing one of the limited number of college roster spots.

    Student-Athletes All Sports Men’s Basketball Women’s Basketball Football Baseball Men’s Hockey Men’s Soccer
    High School Student-Athletes 7,300,000 546,400 429,400 1,083,300 488,800 35,200 440,300
    NCAA Student-Athletes 492,000 18,700 16,600 73,700 34,600 4,100 24,800
    Percentage Moving from High School to NCAA 6% 3.40% 3.90% 6.80% 7.10% 11.70% 5.60%
    Percentage Moving from NCAA to Major Professional* 2% 1.10% 0.90% 1.50% 9.10% 5.60% 1.40%

    The data in the table above also shows the odds of transitioning from an NCAA athlete to a professional athlete, which is roughly 2% when averaging out all of the NCAA sports. This is a good indicator of how important it is that student-athletes take a fit-based approach when deciding which schools to attend, because the experience and education matter more than most people think.

    2. Head Count vs Equivalency College Sports

    The NCAA decides how many athletic scholarships each sport can offer in Division I and Division II. The types of scholarships and the money available depend on the sport and the program. As previously mentioned college sports can be divided into two main categories with regard to scholarships, Head Count Sports and Equivalency Sports.

    Head Count Sports – A Head Count Sport is one that produces a lot of money for the college such as football, basketball, gymnastics, volleyball, and tennis. These sports have a set number of scholarships available per team. While not everyone on the team will receive a scholarship, those who do will receive a full ride.

    Equivalency Sports – Equivalency Sports are those that produce less revenue for schools and include sports not listed above, like baseball and soccer. Coaches are given a certain amount of money for their entire team which they can divide into scholarships of varying amounts. Coaches often spit this money into smaller amounts. For example, a DI soccer coach may divide his scholarship money into many half or quarter scholarships to try and lure more athletes to his program.

    3. Full Scholarships vs Partial Scholarships

    Full athletic scholarships cover tuition and fees, room, board and required course related books. Partial scholarships only cover a portion of these costs with the rest having to be covered by some other form of financial aid, or the student themselves.

    4. Scholarships Aren’t Guaranteed

    It is important to note that athletic scholarships are often not given in four year increments but have to be renewed each year, at the college coach’s discretion. Each college and college coach has a specific set of requirements that they need a student-athlete to meet in order to ensure that they maintain their scholarship. When deciding how to pursue financial aid it is important to factor in this reality as a season ending injury or consistently poor performance levels could leave you high and dry.

    5. Scholarships Amounts Can Change

    Coaches sometimes increase scholarship amounts to keep certain players and prevent them from transferring, depending on their performance levels. These coaches will take some extra money from somewhere else to compensate the player. This could mean the player has their scholarship increased from a quarter to a half scholarship for instance.

    Athletic scholarships are extremely valuable, and extremely competitive. The odds of obtaining an athletic scholarship from certain institutions should form part of your overall Best Fit college evaluation. Specific college websites usually have athletic scholarship information to help you evaluate your chances. The scholarship question is often an integral part of your communication with college coaches during the recruiting process. To learn more about every aspect of this college recruiting process, visit the ACA College Recruiting Blog.