By Paul Culp, MA (Oxon.), CFT, GCDF, CCSP
Athletic scholarships can be an excellent means of paying for college, but every athlete should be realistic about the demands.
More than 8 million high school students participate in school sports, and although we have no way of knowing how many of them would welcome a college athletic scholarship, we conjecture that a large majority would look upon such a development as a dream come true. As we explained in The “How Many” and “How Much” of Athletic Scholarships (September 18, 2018), only about 2 percent are so fortunate, so surely no one who attained the exalted status of scholarship student-athlete would voluntarily abdicate it, right?
As it turns out, quite a few people do.
“Kids who have worked their whole life trying to get a scholarship think the hard part is over when they get the college money,” one baseball player told The New York Times. “They don’t know that it’s a whole new monster when you get here.”
According to the Times, as many as 15 percent of scholarship athletes walk away from the game and the money after freshman or sophomore year. “I’m missing the sport terribly already,” one such athlete, a field hockey player, told the Times a few months later, “but it was a ton of work. Receiving an athletic scholarship is a wonderful thing, but most of us only know what we’re getting, not what we’re getting into.”
Time isn’t necessarily money.
In fact, most athletes are not getting as much as is generally supposed. The average NCAA Division I scholarship is about $14,000 per year for men and $15,000 for women, which sounds like a lot until you realize that 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 (see An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much, September 6, 2018). Furthermore, most NCAA and all NAIA scholarships are equivalency sports rather than head-count sports, which means that a scholarship can be divided among as many athletes as the coach desires, instead of allocation on a one-scholarship-one-athlete basis.
“We love what we do, and it is worth it,” the baseball player said. “But everybody thinks every college athlete is on a pampered full ride. The truth is a lot of us are getting $4,000 and working our butts off for it.”
Actually the truth is that quite a few are getting enough to cover books, and not much else. That’s nothing to sneeze at, considering what books cost, but for many athletes a small scholarship is not worth the obligations attending it, considering the hectic and over-committed lives of many student-athletes.
The Division I athletes interviewed indicated they devoted at least four hours a day to their sport, not counting the time it takes to play or to travel to games. Classes must be scheduled in the early morning to free the afternoon for practices and games. Practices often last from 4 to 6:30 p.m., although several athletes talked about how they had to arrive early for treatment of injuries or to have old injuries taped or harnessed. Highly competitive, demanding practices come next.
Then there are the team meetings. A good friend of ours who played Division I football told us that he had found time management challenging even though, as a redshirt, he was given five years to graduate and was accordingly limited each year to the minimum number of semester hours that could be considered a full load. (Regulations have since been changed to allow athletes on the five-year plan to begin graduate school if they complete their bachelor’s degrees with athletic eligibility remaining.) The meetings, on top of practices and games and travel, crowded him badly, and as a quarterback he had meetings on top of meetings.
“Do I have I time to stop and parley with these carefree scholars?” the letterman at the far right is asking himself.
With time-management problems comes a feeling of being conflicted. One ex-varsity basketball player explained his decision to the student news publication at Oklahoma Christian:
I first realized I did not want to continue playing basketball during finals week last semester. Up until that point, both my academics and my play on the court were going well. I was in the rotation on the team and I had A’s in all of my classes. However, during finals week, both of those changed. I began to feel as though every moment I spent on the court, I should have spent studying and vice versa. I decided I needed to make a mature decision that would ultimately be best for my future.
Now that it’s an obligation…
Disaffection with the demands on the athlete’s time often occurs in combination with loss of joy in the sport itself. For some participants, the more serious and businesslike character of college sports can diminish the pure pleasure of an activity they have loved for most of their lives. The basketball player quoted above, having played the game since age five, opted for a place on the junior varsity that didn’t preclude his participation in intramurals.
Lack of playing time is an aggravating factor for some.
You smile now, but the allure of practice fades quickly when you’re not playing and the coach isn’t talking to you.
Another friend of ours, the son of a very prominent football coach, saw little playing time under his father’s regime and decided that the demands of the sport exceeded the satisfactions. After leaving the team, he spent much of his newfound leisure time in the pool halls downtown, with some degree of financial success—and eventually became a clergyman and a professor of religion. It could be said that he had found a more balanced life, no small consideration for athletes who lack the time and opportunity for a normal social life and other campus activities outside their own sports. The baseball player we referred to earlier said his social life had been “stripped bare” and that he hadn’t had a spring break since tenth grade.
Though widely envied by the rest of the student body, athletes often envy other students their opportunities for a less pressured existence. One of the most accomplished high school basketball players of our acquaintance resigned a scholarship after two years, on the grounds that she “just wanted to be a normal person again.” In fact one athlete interviewed by the Times said that athletes refer to other students as “normals.”
Immortality or normality? You must choose.
As a softball player put it, “Seeing the community of the clubs and not being able to participate killed me more than the temporary happiness I was getting out of playing softball. So, I decided that it was worth sacrificing softball so I could gain community in other aspects of my life…I have noticed the way I talk to people is different and I can actually invest in those people because I am not so worn out.”
Many athletes simply come to feel dominated by the requirements they gladly accepted at the outset. “Being on a team really has the capacity to warp your goals and totally push you in a direction you didn’t anticipate going in,” one athlete told The Stanford Daily. “That’s just the culture. All of the facilities, all of the advantages that athletes get, the more they give you, the more they own you.”
Losing the social life they want and gaining the one they don’t want…
And speaking of culture, one college soccer mom cited the party-hearty ambience of the team as a factor in her son’s decision to give up his Division II scholarship:
“My son wasn’t naive enough to think his team would be full of celibate choir boys, but the extent of the partying among his teammates was a surprise to him.” Youthful vigor, the pressures of life as a student-athlete, and the dynamics of team camaraderie contribute to the risk that such socializing as does occur will not be of the most elevated variety.
The consequences of abandoning a scholarship, for whatever reason, of course vary from one individual to another. Walking away from books and free parking at Southeastern West Virginia A, M & I is not quite the same as walking away from a free ride at Stanford. We recommend not choosing any school strictly for the sports; our friend the basketball player had the wisdom to select a school that appealed to her for other reasons and where she was financially able to continue after giving up varsity sports. Some student-athletes have no other hope and can only try to hang on and do their best where they are. We’ll refrain from naming the prominent football coach who, in the days before strict scholarship limits, was notorious for signing more players than he could possibly keep and letting them fight it out for the privilege of staying. The ideal recruit was one who would be destitute without the blessings of the athletic dorm because his family had “broken his plate” when he left home, and he had nowhere else to go. For some reason those teams were noted for a ruthlessness not always in accord with good taste.
Sometimes scholarship athletes quit, but The Coaching Educator never does.
None of this is intended to discourage the pursuit of athletic scholarships, which can be a marvelous way of paying for higher education and, for a tiny minority, the springboard to a professional playing career. The vital thing is to consider each offer with great care and find out as much as you can before committing yourself. The Coaching Educator is proud of our many student-athletes who have secured scholarships, and of the expertise we’ve been offering for the last decade. To learn more about our capabilities, please look at our special services for athletes and performing-arts students. Be sure to watch our free webinars, sign up for our four-week College App Boot Camp, consider our Ultimate Programs, 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 as we keep our clients and admirers advised of new developments in our effort to help students get into and succeed at the right college.
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 also 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.
References and Recommended Reading About College Admissions and Financial Aid
Culp, Paul. “An Arm and a Leg and Your First-born Child: Why College Costs So Much,” The Coaching Educator, 6 September 2018, http://tce.local/2018/09/06/an-arm-and-a-leg-and-your-first-born-child-why-college-costs-so-much/
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. “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. “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/
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/
Drotan, Bryan. “My Kid Quit College Soccer and I’m OK with That,” The Recruiting Code, 23 January 2018, https://therecruitingcode.com/my-kid-quit-college-soccer-and-im-ok-with-that/
Hagood, Madison. “‘I haven’t regretted it once’ Former athletes reflect on quitting college sports,” Talon.News, 30 January 2017, http://www.talon.news/sports/i-have-not-regretted-it-once-students-speak-on-quitting-college-sports/
Pennington, Bill. “It’s Not an Adventure, It’s a Job,” The New York Times, 12 March 2008, https://www.nytimes.com/2008/03/12/sports/12lifestyles.html
Westem, Ashley, “Cardinal athletes weigh decisions to quit,” The Stanford Daily, 27 February 2014, https://www.stanforddaily.com/2014/02/27/cardinal-athletes-weigh-decisions-to-quit/