NCSA: What is a full-ride scholarship?

NCSA: What is a full-ride scholarship?

NCSA Recruiting

NCSA: What is a full-ride scholarship?


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. Nelson Gord is a former collegiate and professional ballplayer, successful high school head coach and also the founder of the largest travel baseball club in Illinois. Nelson 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, helped create NCSA Team Edition, the free recruiting platform for club and high school coaches.

Let’s get real for a minute. Getting recruited to play sports in college is a tremendous opportunity. Playing college sports looks great on a resume and can be very rewarding. But at the end of the day, the number one reason why many parents and athletes want to play college sports is because they want a shot at scholarship money. College tuition continues to skyrocket and a scholarship can potentially save a family tens of thousands of dollars. That’s a pretty big incentive to go after an athletic scholarship!

However, there are some differences between different types of scholarships, as well as fine print for those that are awarded. Any student-athlete looking to score a scholarship should read on to find out the difference between those that are available.

Athletic full-ride scholarships

While a full-tuition scholarship may offer to pay for the entirety of a student’s tuition, attending college requires more than just paying for classes. There are various other fees, as well as the cost of books and room and board. That’s why a full-ride scholarship does its best to cover all the basic costs of attending college, including said books and living expenses. (Sometimes this can even mean including an iPad that is used in class.) But while “full-ride scholarship” may be a term that a lot of people are familiar with and gets tossed around on TV and in movies, it is actually just limited to just six “headcount” sports:

  • Football
  • Men’s basketball
  • Women’s basketball
  • Women’s gymnastics
  • Tennis
  • Volleyball

In headcount sports, scholarships are given out in all-or-nothing chunks. As a result, only about 1% of college student-athletes receive a full-ride scholarship. The remaining players on the roster are walk-ons, and some are preferred walk-ons that may have a chance at getting scholarship money down the line.

MORE: Everything You Need to Know About Scholarships

Partial scholarships

All other sports where scholarships are given out are known as “equivalency sports,” where the majority of scholarships are given as partial scholarships. Basically, the coach can decide how to break up his or her scholarships among the roster. Each program is different in how they divide their scholarship money up, and while you can find full-ride opportunities in equivalency sports, it is most common that athletes receive partial scholarships.

MORE: What are the Different Types of Scholarship Offers?

Not guaranteed

Another thing to know about athletic scholarships, including full rides, is that they are often (but not always) one-year agreements that need to be renewed each year. In 2015, NCAA Division 1 “Power 5” schools implemented a rule that essentially protected D1 student-athletes from having their athletic scholarship taken away for an athletics-related reason. So, if an athlete is not performing up to the coach’s expectations, they’re not at risk of losing their scholarship. However, this rule only applies to D1 schools in the Power 5 conferences: the Big Ten, Big 12, PAC-12, ACC, SEC and Notre Dame. This rule also applies only to athletes who signed their National Letter of Intent and scholarship agreement after January 2015 and who will be receiving an athletic scholarship in their first year.

Other Division 1 schools may choose to follow this rule but are not required to. At these schools, a coach can choose to not renew a scholarship for performance reasons. Finally, it’s still possible for schools to cancel or not renew athletic scholarships for non-athletic reasons, such as being ruled ineligible for competition, providing fraudulent information on paperwork (college application, letter of intent, or financial aid agreement), engaging in misconduct, voluntarily quitting a team or violating university policies. That’s why it’s important for student-athletes to stay on top of their NCAA eligibility requirements and also pick a school that they’d like to attend even if they were not playing sports there. After all, it’s difficult to predict the next four years of your athletic career.

MORE: How to Negotiate Your Athletic Scholarship Offer

Obtaining a full-ride athletic scholarship is a dream come true for many student-athletes, but it’s also a very difficult goal to achieve. That’s why it’s important to also be educated on the different types of scholarship offers and to have a backup plan in case things don’t work out as expected.


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