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.
Every student-athlete dreams of receiving a full-ride scholarship. And so, they turn to Division I sports where top programs award full-rides. But they may not realize that there are competitive offers in other divisions, too.
Here’s at how athletic scholarships work at every division level:
Division I and Division II
Division I college athletes can receive an athletic scholarship, but the type of athletic scholarship depends on the sport. Football (FBS only), men’s and women’s basketball, women’s tennis, women’s gymnastics and women’s volleyball college coaches are restricted in the number of athletes that can be on athletic scholarship. These are called head count scholarships.
Basically, these sports aren’t allowed to divide scholarship money among athletes. Instead, they can only offer a certain number of full-ride athletic scholarships per year. For example, an NCAA DI FBS Football team is allowed 85 scholarships per year, which means they are only allowed to have 85 athletes on scholarship.
You may be thinking right now, “Wait, there are more than 85 football players on a team, so what happens to the rest of the athletes?” Every athlete not on a head count scholarship is considered a walk-on. That means they are on the team, however, they aren’t eligible for an athletic scholarship.
Read more: The Walk-on Route: A Risk Worth Taking?
All other Division I sports (outside of the head count scholarships sports) can award full or partial athletic scholarships. These coaches use equivalency scholarships, meaning they aren’t restricted in the number of athletes who can be on a scholarship. In Division II, for example, all sports provide equivalency scholarships.
To make it really simple—think of a coach who has 15 athletic scholarships, but 30 players on their team. This coach could use provide every athlete with half a scholarship. That’s why most student-athletes in these sports are on a partial scholarship.
Remember that your student-athlete’s scholarship, whether it’s a full-ride or partial, still needs to be renewed every year. They are only guaranteed their scholarship for one year. Common reasons athletes lose their scholarships are injury, academic ineligibility or coaching changes. That’s why your student-athlete should always feel confident about a college, even if they were no longer competing on a sports team.
It’s true that Division III programs do not offer athletic scholarships, however, the athletic department can still play a significant role in your child’s financial aid package.
Division III college coaches leverage other types of aid student-athletes may qualify for, such as merit-based scholarships and grants. With Division III being mostly made up of small private schools, they tend to have these types of funds more readily available.
And these offers can be extremely appealing for families. For example, a Division III college coach may make an academic scholarship offer that relies heavily on grants, so your family isn’t required to pay that money back. In some cases, these offers may be better than a Division I or II partial athletic scholarship, especially if your child has a high GPA and test scores.
Don’t forget NAIA schools
Many student-athletes either overlook or just don’t know enough about the NAIA and what types of scholarships they offer. Like Division I and Division II, NAIA provides full or partial athletic scholarships. And in a lot of cases, the scholarships can be very attractive.
NAIA schools offer the following sports: basketball, baseball, cross country, football, soccer, track & field, swimming & diving, softball, wrestling, volleyball (women’s only) and competitive cheer/dance.
Top NAIA programs have been compared to Division II sports. And because Division I and Division II scholarships may be hard to come by, your family should keep your options open and consider NAIA, as it could cover a nice chunk of college costs.
Read more: What is the NAIA?
Calculating Your Cost
Sometimes an athletic scholarship isn’t always the best option. It really depends on the amount of money your student-athlete receives and the cost of the school. For example, imagine if your student-athlete received two offers:
- School A: The cost is $50,000/year, and your child received an athletic scholarship offer of 50 percent ($25,000/year).
- School B: The cost is $15,000/year, and your child received a scholarship offer of 10 percent ($1,500/year).
In terms of what you owe, School B is actually your better financial option even though your athlete is receiving less money–$25,000 per year at School A vs. $13,500 per year at School B.
That’s why your family should always consider the total cost when calculating which college option is the best fit. Remember, you should also factor in any other financial aid that your student-athlete might be eligible for including academic scholarships. If you are not sure, just ask!