Everything you need to know about athletic scholarships

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. Joe is a former college-athlete, coach, and NAIA National Champion. He 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.

College is expensive. For many families, the only way to afford a college education is for their student to receive financial aid. An athletic scholarship is a great way to help lower the price for qualified student-athletes. However, to take advantage of this opportunity, you must know all the facts. This article lays out the fundamental information you need to find your best athletic scholarship opportunity.

How do athletic scholarships work?

Athletic scholarships are non-guaranteed, financial aid agreements between an athlete and their university. College coaches award these scholarships to athletes based on the coach’s perception of their athletic ability. Most scholarships are one-year agreements that must be renewed each year. Scholarships are either classified as equivalency, in which coaches give partial scholarships to players, or head count, where all offers are full scholarships. Athletic scholarships are offered at the NCAA DI, DII, NAIA and Junior College levels. Schools competing at the NCAA DIII level are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships but do offer other forms of financial aid.

How college coaches use scholarships

There is no “industry average” when it comes to athletic scholarship amounts. Each coach and sport has different theories and processes for using scholarships to put their teams together. That said, here are a few ways coaches use scholarships.

  • All the money to the top athletes – Some programs offer full or almost full scholarships to the top athletes on the team and fill the rest of the roster out with recruited walk-on positions. This is popular in sports like baseball, softball, track and swimming where an elite recruit at a specific position or event(s) can be worth a lot to their team’s performance.
  • No scholarships to underclassmen – Many coaches like to use scholarships as a reward to athletes who’ve been with the team. They choose to offer very little or no scholarships to most underclassmen, with the understanding that if you have been with the team a few years and are a major contributor, you will get a scholarship.
  • Divide scholarships (almost) equally – Some coaches like to divide scholarship up among several individuals so each person has something. This is popular in sports or events where you keep extra people on the roster and want a larger group of equally talented individuals. Coaches often use this strategy to bring in a large recruiting class and give the top performers a larger scholarship in future years.
  • Underfunded Programs – Organizations like the NCAA and NAIA limit the number of scholarships a team can offer based on division level. However, not all schools can offer the maximum number of scholarships due to limited funding. When trying to determine if an offer is “good,” you will want to ask if the school is fully funded. The only way to do this is to talk with the coach.

How do you get a full-ride scholarship?

The first thing to understand is that full scholarships are the exception and not the rule. If you play a headcount sport (football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s tennis, volleyball or gymnastics) at the NCAA DI level, any scholarship offer you receive will be for a full-ride. Getting a full-ride outside of headcount sports requires the following:

  • Fill a critical role on the team – Not all positions or events are created equal, and being a great athlete at one position isn’t going to get the same scholarship offers as another. For example, in baseball, pitchers will get much larger scholarship offers than an outfielder. Sprinters get larger offers in track & field than long jumpers.
  • Have multiple schools offering a scholarship – Scholarships are a limited resource for coaches, and they need to stretch those dollars to field the best team possible. The only true leverage you have with a coach is to have other offers. Having multiple schools with genuine interest will ensure each school is maximizing their offers to you.
  • Move down a division level – If you find that you aren’t getting the financial aid package you need at one division level, contacting schools at a lower division level might lead to a better offer. A lower-level DI talent will typically be a better recruit at a DII school.

Athletic Scholarships vs Academic Scholarships

For many student-athletes, the appeal of athletic scholarships is that they will offset some–or all–college costs. The truth is, more money is available through academic scholarships, and your best financial aid package would be to combine different offers.

MORE: A parent’s guide to creating a better college financial package

Here are the facts if you are considering combining academic money with an athletic scholarship.

  • You need a minimum GPA to combine athletic and academic money – There is an NCAA rule that requires you have a minimum GPA/test scores to be able to accept academic money as a student-athlete. You need one of the following, a minimum of a 3.5 GPA, 25+ on the ACT or 1200 on the SAT. Without this minimum, your academic money will be counted against the athletic scholarship dollars of the program. If you meet the minimums, coaches can give you academic money instead of or together with athletic money.
  • Getting an academic scholarship in place of an athletic scholarship – In a scenario where a coach thinks you are worth a 20 percent scholarship, if they can get you that money through academics instead of athletics, they will do that. Many families feel “I should get the athletic AND academic money,” but that is not how it works for most coaches.
  • Academic scholarships stay with you – Athletes are an injury or bad season away from potentially losing their athletic scholarships. Academic scholarships are a more secure form of financial aid. They may not come with the perceived prestige of an athletic scholarship, but if money is the most important factor to your family, you want to earn that aid through your grades.
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