Scoring a college sports scholarship

By Shelly Gigante
Shelly Gigante specializes in personal finance issues. Her work has appeared in a variety of publications and news websites.
Posted on Jul 31, 2018

For student athletes and their parents, a college sports scholarship is the holy grail.

To better their kids’ odds of landing a full ride to college, families of young athletes invest big bucks in travel sports teams, state-of-the-art gear, and personal training.

Their commitment, of course, is not exclusively tied to collegiate aspirations.

Parents and caregivers also do it to support their children’s interests and cultivate their strengths. But rare is the parent who does not at least contemplate a return on investment in the form of free tuition, especially when their kids show talent on their teams.

Who can blame them? According to the College Board, the average published tuition, fees, and room and board for in-state students enrolled full-time is $20,770 at public four-year colleges and universities in 2017-18, $36,420 at public four-year out-of-state schools, and $46,950 for private nonprofit four-year schools. 1

“When you spend so much time and money on your child’s athletic development, you start viewing that as an investment,” said John Engh, executive director of the National Alliance for Youth Sports. “When student-athletes get close to high school and decide they want to quit their sport, you can’t tell me parents don’t encourage them to stick with it because of college.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association, NCAA, reports Division I and II schools award $2.9 billion in athletic scholarships to more than 150,000 student athletes annually. (Division III schools, with more than 180,000 student-athletes, do not offer athletics-based financial aid, but many student athletes receive academic grants or need-based scholarships.)

That may sound like a lot, but when you consider the millions of high school students who play sports across the country, securing a piece of that pie is a serious long shot for most.

Only about 2 percent of high school students are awarded athletic scholarships each year, and fewer still go on to play professional sports, the NCAA reports.

Show me the money

Scholarship opportunities vary widely depending on the sport the student plays and which school he or she attends.

Some sports yield bigger athletic scholarships than others, including football, men’s or women’s basketball, and women’s volleyball, tennis and gymnastics. These sports tend to offer full rides, according to Athnet , an online scholarship database.

Others — including crew, cross country, archery, baseball, fencing, field hockey, golf, ice hockey, lacrosse, riflery, sailing, skiing, soccer, softball, swimming, track, and wrestling — primarily offer partial scholarships, Athnet reports.

The vast majority of athletic scholarships are partial scholarships that require students to maintain satisfactory grades for renewal. Some also hinge on a student’s continued performance excellence.

For male athletes in Division I schools, the average athletic scholarship award at NCAA Division I schools for 2015, the most recent year for which data is available, was $14,270. Female athletes averaged $15,162 in athletic awards, according to Scholarshipstats.com, an aggregator of scholarship data.2

Be strategic: maximize athletic aid

Athletes who seek to maximize athletic aid should apply to colleges strategically, as some schools are more generous than others. (Calculator: College Savings Calculator )

Division I schools enroll the most students, manage the largest athletic budgets and provide the most athletic scholarships, the NCAA reports .

Some 53 percent of all student athletes accepted to a Division I school receive some level of athletic scholarship, while 56 percent of student athletes at Division II schools receive at least partial athletic aid.

Scholarshipstats.com provides a breakdown of how much individual colleges and universities across the country awarded to students in athletic scholarships in 2014-15, the most recent year for which data are available.

High school athletes can also use the database created by FastWeb.com to match available scholarships to their personal profile.

“As student athletes tour schools or meet with admissions officers, they should indicate their interest to play their desired sport in college,” said FastWeb.com Editor Kathryn Randolph in an email interview.

Like any other scholarship search, she said, students should maximize their search by looking everywhere – corporations, local leagues, and large scholarship search sites like Fastweb.com – as well as soliciting help from their high school guidance counselors.

According to Randolph, “The more student athletes research and apply for scholarships, the better their chances of actually winning one – or a few!”

Do-it-yourself profile

FinAid.org recommends youth athletes avoid fee-based scholarship search services and instead create their own profile of their academic and athletic qualifications, including copies of newspaper clippings in which their performance is mentioned, letters of recommendation from current coaches, and their season schedule.

A short five- to 10-minute video of your performance highlights, FinAid.com suggests on its website, may also prove useful. Send copies of your portfolio to the coaches at the schools you hope to attend.

Private scholarships

Athletes should also cast a wide net.

Apart from athletic aid distributed by colleges and universities, a wide variety of full and partial athletic scholarships also exist through private foundations, professional organizations, local organizations, and corporations.

Some are tailored to Latinos, women, the LGBTQ community, those pursuing a specific major, or residents of a specific town, county, or state. Check with your coach, contact local organizations and research scholarship opportunities at the schools you hope to attend.

Unigo.com, which tracks student aid, offers a database of athletic scholarships that students can search based on their unique profile.

Nearly all, however, require academic excellence.

Foot Locker Scholar Athletes Program , for example, offers 20 awards worth $20,000 apiece to high school senior athletes who demonstrate exceptional academic ability and strong leadership skills.

Good grades help

Indeed, a slam-dunk grade point average is a critical factor in helping students secure athletic aid, and one of the only factors over which high school students have complete control.

Scholarshipstats.com reports good grades in high school (all four years) may double your chances of playing sports in college.

Why? College coaches want smart players. They avoid recruiting athletes who could end up being ineligible to play for academic reasons, and they view strong grades in high school as an indicator that the athlete has developed the time-management skills necessary to balance a rigorous academic and athletic workload, Scholarshipstats.com reports on its website.

Another reason is that athletes with excellent grades might just qualify for an academic scholarship that would free up their limited athletic awards for other players — a win-win for the player and coach.

Collegiate athletic scholarships are few and far between, but they do exist for top students who deliver.

Parents and coaches can help pave the way by keeping the focus on personal development and fun, said Sally Johnson, executive director of the National Council of Youth Sports in Stuart, Florida, in an interview.

“Scholarships should not be the motivation,” she said. “When parents focus only on winning and college scholarships, the kids really suffer because it takes the fun away.”

It also leads to burnout, almost ensuring the athletes quit their sport long before they start visiting colleges.

“Youth sports is so much more about developing desirable traits, like perseverance, dealing with failure, and maintaining good health,” said Johnson. “If you let children play to have fun, and perform to their ability, they will rise to the top on their own.”

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This article was first published in July, 2016. It has been updated.

1 College Board, "Trends in Higher Education, Average Published Undergraduate Charges by Sector," 2017-18.

2 Scholarshipstats.com, "Average Athletic Scholarship per Varsity Athlete," 2014.

The information provided is not written or intended as specific tax or legal advice. MassMutual and its subsidiaries, employees, and representatives are not authorized to give tax or legal advice. You are encouraged to seek advice from your own tax or legal counsel. Opinions expressed by those interviewed are their own, and do not necessarily represent the views of Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company.