(Football photo by Keith Johnston, lacrosse by Jeffrey Lin)
By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.)
There is much to be said for tact in working with young people, but sometimes the raw, unvarnished truth has much to recommend it. I once was involved in an orientation session for high school freshmen during which the principal of the school discussed career planning with a group of high-spirited boys, one of whom asked him in all seriousness if planning to play in the NFL was a good idea.
“That’s a really terrible idea,” the principal replied, with some vigor.
It would have been a terrible idea even if the youngster in question had ever displayed the tiniest scintilla of athletic talent, which he had not. Even athletes who reach the highest levels of professional sports live a precarious existence, vulnerable to injuries sustained not only in competition or practice but also in ordinary everyday life, with relentless competition for position all along the way. George Blanda played in the NFL and AFL for 26 years, but he was George Blanda and you aren’t. He also became unemployed several times. No matter how good you are, you need to allow for the possibility that the good times can end at any moment.
That said, if you have the necessary talent and work habits, an athletic scholarship can be the perfect means of paying for college, enjoying the many satisfactions of competing after high school (and perhaps beyond), and meeting people who can be lifelong friends and associates. Retired college football coach Pat Sullivan, who won the Heisman Trophy nearly half a century ago, has said that one of the greatest benefits of having played college sports was the network of supporters he had to help him in his battle with cancer when he was past fifty. One of my dearest friends, a star quarterback in his college days, still numbers the people he met through college sports among his best and most trusted friends and business contacts, even though he is now nearing the age at which many men retire.
You have nothing to lose by giving it a try.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association reports that its member institutions in Divisions I and II provide nearly $3 billion in athletic scholarships to 150,000 student-athletes. (Division III sports are non-scholarship.) That sounds like a lot of money and a lot of people, and it is. But the NCAA also cautions that of the 8 million high school students now participating in high school sports, only 480,000 will go on to compete in the NCAA, and of course many of those will be in Division III or will be walk-ons, i.e. non-scholarship athletes in Divisions I and II. Only about 2 percent of high school athletes receive scholarships to compete in college.
Among those who do, the number eventually playing in major professional leagues is minuscule: 1.6 percent for football, 9.5 percent for baseball, 1.2 percent for men’s basketball, and .9 percent for women’s basketball. That’s not encouraging. On the other hand, graduation rates are 86 percent in Division I, and 71 percent in Division II. A professional career is unlikely, but the opportunity to parlay one’s athletic talents into a degree is a good bet indeed for students who obtain scholarships.
Other, smaller, sanctioning bodies provide less data, but we should pause here and place them in discussion: The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) is less strict about eligibility requirements and assorted other scholarship matters than the NCAA is, according to Exact Sports, but it has only about 300 member schools, as opposed to the NCAA’s 1,200, and it oversees 13 sports to the NCAA’s 23. The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) falls in between, with 500-plus member schools, 15 men’s sports, and 13 women’s sports. Scholarship limits at juco level are in some cases more generous than those of the NCAA.
U.S. News explains that not all athletic scholarships constitute a free ride. As examples of free-ride scholarships, Division I men’s basketball and Division I-A football are “head count” sports, meaning that there is a direct correlation between the number of scholarships permissible and the number of players to whom those funds may be distributed. Full scholarships may be available to women in basketball, tennis, gymnastics, and volleyball, depending on the school’s division affiliation. Other NCAA sports are “equivalency sports,” meaning that the funds can be divided among as many athletes as the coaches choose, and all NAIA scholarships are of the equivalency variety.
According to Scholarship Stats, the average amount of scholarship money awarded to NCAA Division I athletes is now about $14,000 for men and $15,000 for women, with Division II paying considerably less than half that. The NAIA average is about $7,000 for students of both sexes (with women again receiving a bit more), while scholarships in the NJCAA average about $2,000 for men and $2,800 for women. As we have noted elsewhere, the national average cost of tuition and fees is now about $35,000 per year at private colleges, $10,000 for in-state residents at state institutions, and $26,000 for out-of-state residents attending state schools (“An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much,” September 6, 2018). In other words, an athletic scholarship usually doesn’t cover anywhere near everything. Athletic scholarships can be combined with other forms of financial aid, however, so the lack of a full free ride is not necessarily an impediment to making sports help you through college.
It’s also essential to realize that a high percentage of scholarships do not carry a four-year guarantee. Renewal can depend on a variety of factors, including athletic performance, grades, and good behavior. As noted above, depending on sports to meet your financial needs can make for a precarious existence.
A brief word about NCAA Division III: While these institutions do not offer athletic scholarships per se, involvement in sports can be part of an extracurricular resume that colleges consider strongly in making decisions about whom to admit and whether to bestow financial aid. Thus it is possible, even without athletic scholarships, for athletic prowess and the desire to perform at the college level to play a role in the acquisition of financial aid for student-athletes applying at Division III schools.
Positioning yourself to obtain college funding via your athletic exploits can be a complex matter, depending on the circumstances, and the process can vary greatly between sanctioning bodies and from one sport to another. Nonetheless it obviously can be well worth the effort in terms of the benefits to your finances and college experience, plus the long-term advantages of valuable relationships established. The Coaching Educator has nearly a decade of experience helping students and their families gain admission to their preferred colleges and find the financial aid necessary for success, and that includes assistance with the procurement of athletic scholarships.
We can help you identify the type of program you need, help you manage the necessary contacts with recruiters, prepare websites and portfolios to present you as favorably as possible, and assist with any additional financial aid components needed to augment an athletic scholarship. To learn more about how we can help, book a free consultation today.
Paul Culp has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University. A former journalist, he has also taught academic writing and research methods at the university level and an assortment of humanities courses at the secondary level, and now writes for The Coaching Educator team.