USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Jason Smith is a former NCAA DIII athlete and college coach at all three division levels. Jason is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
Earlier this year, the Chicago Tribune reported on the growing practice of college football programs extending verbal offers to as many as 392 student-athletes in one season. Of course, there just aren’t 392 open roster spots in a year, so what’s going on? Simply put, the world of athletic recruiting for big programs is unique. They offer widely—and early—in hopes of attracting the best talent before another school can snatch them up. Although it’s true that this practice of bulk scholarship offers exists, it is not a reality for most student-athletes. However, the topic provides a great opportunity to discuss scholarships and scholarship offers.
Verbal scholarship offers are nonbinding.
The reason those college football programs can extend hundreds of offers is because verbal offers are not official—and neither are the verbal commitments that your student-athlete might make after receiving an offer. Nothing is set in stone until the National Letter of Intent is signed. However, it’s important to keep in mind that even though they are not binding, for the majority of athletics programs, verbal offers and commitments should be taken very seriously.
Insider Tip: Not every school uses the NLI—about 650 NCAA DI and DII schools—and it’s not mandatory to sign. The NAIA and NJCAA have their own versions of an NLI letter.
Athletic scholarships are one-year agreements with schools.
College coaches are usually the ones who extend verbal offers, but the National Letter of Intent is actually a binding agreement between the college and the student-athlete. That means if your student-athlete signs an NLI and the coach who offered them the scholarships leaves the program—which can and does happen—their contract with the school remains. However, most athletics scholarships are only for one year. So, in the case of a coach change, just know your athlete may not get a scholarship in the second year.
Most athletic scholarships are not full rides.
One of the biggest misconceptions about athletic scholarships is that they are all full rides. In reality, fewer than 2 percent of high school student-athletes are offered scholarships, and just 1 percent of those receive full rides. Full rides are only given to those playing a DI head count sport, and there are only six of those (for men, it’s DI basketball and DI-A football; for women, it’s DI basketball, tennis, volleyball and gymnastics).
Insider Tip: DIII colleges do not offer athletic scholarships, but the NCAA reports that 80 percent of DIII athletes receive non-athletics aid.
You do not need a scholarship to compete.
For most sports, there are more roster spots open than scholarships available. Thus, if your student-athlete does not receive a scholarship offer, it doesn’t mean they cannot play on the team. You can walk on to a team, which essentially means trying out without receiving a scholarship. Some coaches even ask certain student-athletes to walk on if they see value in them but don’t have scholarship money left. It’s also possible to walk on to a team one year and receive a scholarship the next year, as they are given out on a yearly basis.
READ MORE: The 5 most commonly asked questions about being a college walk on and also read up on what it means to gray shirt
Scholarships can be taken away.
Although no one likes to think about it, it’s possible for student-athletes to lose their athletic scholarships, and it can happen for a variety of reasons. The most common scenario is when a student-athlete thinks they have a scholarship but they don’t actually have one. This is one of the pitfalls of not understanding the difference between a verbal offer and an actual scholarship. As explained above, until the contract is signed, there is no scholarship.
Student-athletes can also lose a scholarship due to injury, although it’s more likely that they will be redshirted. Another way your student-athlete can lose a scholarship is by not being renewed for the next year. Non-renewals can occur for a number of different reasons, including if the current coach leaves, if the student-athlete gets in trouble, poor performance on or off the court/field, among others.
The growing number of verbal offers may continue to make a lot of noise just remember why they are being made and scholarships only become real when a student-athlete signs a binding agreement with the school.