By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP
For most Americans, including the sports-obsessed, track and field is mostly something that happens in the Olympics or that running backs, receivers, and cornerbacks do in the off-season. Occasionally a sensational performer will capture the attention of the general public, as has been the case lately with Houston high-schooler Matthew “White Lighting” Boling and his exploits as a record-breaking sprinter. The object of attention is usually a sprinter, since those events require no patience from the audience and very little understanding of rules, but a well-stocked track team is a large unit, most of whose members do things other than or in addition to running lickety-split for short distances. It’s a sport that calls for many types of talent, recruited in different ways.
Having already published articles about the scholarship stakes in football, baseball, basketball, golf, women’s soccer, women’s volleyball, and lacrosse, along with research on athletic scholarships in general (The “How Many” and “How Much” of Athletic Scholarships and The “How To” of Athletic Scholarships Explained), we now turn our attention to track scholarships. Our analysis also encompasses cross country scholarships, as the middle- and long-distance track contingent and the cross country team are generally the same people drawing on the same aid package.
Knowing how track scholarships work can keep your hopes from landing in a pile of sawdust.
Almost 1.1 million high school athletes in the United States compete in track and field, according to Scholarshipstats.com. That’s about the same as the number of football players, and considerably more than the 980,000 basketball players. About 600,000 high school boys participate, while 33,000 male athletes compete in college on 1,137 teams: 287 in Division I, 216 in Division II, 316 in Division III, 169 in the NAIA, and 75 in the NJCAA, with “other four-year” and “other two-year” accounting for the remainder.
Just over five percent of male high school thinclads (we’re exhuming a very old term, like we did with “cagers” in our basketball article) go on to compete in college. Only 1.5 percent reach NCAA Division I. The odds of competing somewhere in the NCAA or NAIA are 22:1, while in Division I the figure is a sobering 68:1.
Approximately 490,000 high school girls participate in track and field, with about 32,000 competing in college, on 1,237 teams: 338 in Division I, 248 in Division II, 324 in Division III, 173 in the NAIA, and 77 in the NJCAA, with the “other” categories accounting for the rest. Note the greater number of teams for women.
Slightly more than 6 percent of female high-schoolers go on to compete in some collegiate stratum. Just over two percent make it to Division I, and the odds of doing so are about 16:1, with 2 percent of high-schoolers making it to Division I. The odds for the women are 18:1 for the NCAA as a whole and the NAIA, and 48:1 for Division I.
So far, things look a bit more promising for the women, a pattern that continues as we consider the number of track scholarships available. The average team size in D1 is 34 for men and 33 for women, but women’s teams are allowed 18 scholarships, against only 12.6 for men. The scholarship limit is the same in D2, with an average roster strength of 26 for both sexes. Division III schools do not award athletic scholarships, but we’ll soon explain how sports can nonetheless play a role in the D3 financial aid process. The NAIA average roster size is 24 for men and 20 for women, with a uniform scholarship limit of 12. In juco ranks the scholarship limit actually exceeds roster size: 20 scholarships allowed per team, with an average roster strength of 17 men and 11 women.
Not for nothing does she look so much happier than he does.
Here, as with most of the other sports we’ve written about, it’s necessary to explain what it means to be “on scholarship.” Not all sports are head-count sports, meaning sports in which scholarships are awarded at a ratio of one full scholarship per athlete—in other words, the highly coveted full free ride. Far more common are equivalency sports, in which coaches can divide one scholarship among as many athletes as they see fit. Track scholarships fall into the latter category.
According to Coach Bob Braman of Florida State: “The biggest misconception is that we’re like football. Track and field is limited to 12.6 scholarships for men and 18 scholarships for women. With 19 events plus cross country to cover, that means that full scholarships are extremely rare.”
Could be a cross country meet. Could be just some guys looking for a coach who’ll give a full scholarship.
Note the disparity between average roster size and the scholarship limit—and then take on board the fact that there are no roster limits in college track. The coaches can scatter the proceeds of one award very widely indeed—as in a high of 59 scholarship recipients on a men’s team and 61 on a women’s team. The average number is 29 for men, with a reported low of nine, and 32 for women, with a low of 16.
As for the value of the scholarships, the average—before the coaches break up the loaves and fishes for distribution to the multitude—is about $11,300 for men and $15,000 for women. The highest reported figures are $24,000 and $26,000, with a low figure of $3,000 for either sex.
We imagine that female tracksters and their parents are enjoying this article more than the boys and their parents are, but that’s how it goes with many sports, actually. Those great big all-male football programs are being offset in other areas.
Regardless of the condition of your digestive system at the moment, remember that the track scholarship limit is per program, not per year. The number of athletes returning can limit the number of scholarships available for incoming freshmen and can affect whether and how a scholarship is distributed among multiple athletes.
As one parent wrote in MileSplit:
This is supposed to be fun, but it won’t always feel fun…There is a business aspect to college track and field, and you need to face that reality quickly in the process. If you do the math, it’s sobering. Your son or daughter may be an elite runner, but that likely does not equal a full scholarship, at least not as an incoming freshman. Cross country is a separate sport, as is indoor track, but there is one pile of scholarships that will be applied to cross country, indoor track, and outdoor track. This means that coaches are trying to get as much talent as they can get for as little money as possible. It’s a sad reality, but that’s where our sport is at the moment.
As we pointed out in our oft-cited An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much, the average cost of tuition and fees for the 2017–2018 school year was $34,740 at private colleges and universities, $9,970 for in-state residents at public institutions, and $25,620 for out-of-state residents attending public institutions. Compare that with the scholarship averages above, and take note that athletic scholarships do not exclude other forms of financial aid.
Hear, oh hear our friend Steve, the father of a promising runner and strong student, who told us that Division I schools like the young man “because he can get the bulk of his money from the academic side and they just kick in a little for meals, etc.” Words to live by.
We promised to circle back to Division III. While D3 programs do not offer athletic scholarships, sports can still be a ticket to financial aid, a component of an extracurricular resume that colleges consider strongly in making decisions about whom to admit and whether to bestow fiscal assistance. 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.
How good do you have to be to rate a track scholarship? Coach Braman makes the criteria very clear:
It’s very important for high school athletes to understand that our sport is very objective and that times, distances, etc., can be measured against other athletes all over the world. The reality is major college programs like ours will not recruit athletes with “untapped potential.” We want the best of the best and then we’ll separate them based on coaching, competition, etc.
He’s in Division I, of course. For a complete table of performance criteria for every event in NCAA and NAIA track and field, click here and scroll for a bit. The harriers in our audience (“Gee, Wally, another funny old new word?”) can view the cross country criteria here.
We at The Coaching Educator don’t want to discourage anyone. Quite the opposite. What we want to do is enhance your awareness of the difficulties and decisions involved in the quest for a track scholarship, so you won’t be caught out at a critical moment.
Track scholarships, like other scholarships, usually go to people who are strategic.
We cannot emphasize strongly enough the importance of having a strategy not only for pursuing athletic scholarships but also for combining them with other forms of financial aid. A decade of experience helps us help you stay on schedule and on task, in contact with the right people, and within the rules. We’re here to help students and their families make sense of an increasingly complicated procedure and find ways to overcome the ever-increasing expense of college for athletes and non-athletes alike.
The Coaching Educator can help you determine which hurdles await you…
…and how high the bar is set…
…so you can clear it somehow or other.
We’ll help you aim long and high…
…avoid deep trouble…
…get out front…
…and finish strongly.
It’s your race, but we’re with you all the way.
To learn more about our philosophy and capabilities, be sure to watch our free webinars, listen to our podcasts, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs and our special services for athletes and performing-arts students, and book a consultation to hear what we can do for you and how we do it. Keep reading this blog, and look for us on social media (see links in “Credits and Recommendations” below) as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right school.
Paul Culp is certified as a global career development facilitator and writes about college admissions, college costs, financial aid, and college life in general for The Coaching Educator team. A former journalist and corporate ghostwriter who now operates Shenandoah Proofreading, Editing & Composition Services (SPECS), he has been a humanities teacher at all levels from university down to sixth grade. Paul has degrees from Oxford University, Jacksonville State University, and Samford University, and also is certified as a fitness trainer.
Image Credits: 1924 Olympic cross country by Unknown, all others from Earl Myers and Rich Hacker, Track and Field. Mankato, Minn.: Creative Educational Society, 1961
Recommended Reading About College Admissions and Athletic Scholarships
Culp, Paul. “An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much, The Coaching Educator, http://tce.local/2018/09/06/an-arm-and-a-leg-and-your-first-born-child-why-college-costs-so-much/
Culp, Paul. “Baseball Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 15 April 2019, http://tce.local/2019/04/15/baseball-scholarships-by-the-numbers/
Culp, Paul. “Basketball Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 4 April 2019, http://tce.local/2019/04/04/basketball-scholarships-by-the-numbers/
Culp, Paul. “Football Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 17 April 2019, http://tce.local/2019/04/17/football-scholarships-by-the-numbers/
Culp, Paul. “Golf Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 3 May 2019, http://tce.local/2019/05/03/golf-scholarships-by-the-numbers/
, Paul. “The ‘How Many’ and ‘How Much’ of Athletic Scholarships,” The Coaching Educator, 18 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/18/the-how-many-and-how-much-of-athletic-scholarships/
Culp, Paul. “The ‘How To’ of Athletic Scholarships Explained,” The Coaching Educator, 24 November 2018, http://tce.local/2018/11/24/the-how-to-of-athletic-scholarships-explained/
Culp, Paul. “Lacrosse Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 6 December 2018, http://tce.local/2018/12/06/lacrosse-scholarships-by-the-numbers/
Culp, Paul. “Ten Unusual Athletic Scholarships, The Coaching Educator, 8 March 2019, http://tce.local/2019/04/08/ten-unusual-athletic-scholarships/
Culp, Paul. “Why Scholarship Athletes Quit,” The Coaching Educator, 25 February 2019, http://tce.local/2019/02/25/why-scholarship-athletes-quit/
Culp, Paul. “Women’s Soccer Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 23 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/23/womens-soccer-scholarships-by-the-numbers/?fbclid=IwAR1tqZ-uyy8Kjw8krJDl–ERyuxUF_lt2uVfcqFqbNtmQDDTQvvBK7EOhJ8
Culp, Paul. “Women’s Volleyball Scholarships by the Numbers,” The Coaching Educator, 10 October 2018, http://tce.local/2018/10/10/womens-volleyball-scholarships-by-the-numbers/