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 and play at the college level. Jaimie Duffek was one of the top 50 high school softball players in Illinois and went on to play outfield for Drake University. Jaimie is just one of many former college athletes 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.
To offset climbing college costs, many student-athletes combine partial athletic scholarship offers with various academic aid packages. While the majority of college athletic scholarships only cover a fraction of the actual cost of earning a college degree, academic and merit-based scholarships and grants are more than capable of covering the difference. As you consider different schools, here are four keys to maximizing athletic and academic aid.
NCAA requirements to combine academic and athletic scholarships
Does the NCAA let you combine academic and athletic scholarships? Yes, but you have to earn it in the classroom. While Division I athletic scholarships are relatively easy to qualify for — you need to graduate high school, complete 16 core courses and earn a GPA of 2.3 —the criteria are significantly higher for student-athletes looking to secure non-athletic financial aid. To accept an academic scholarship as an incoming freshman, student-athletes need to meet the following criteria:
- Top 10 percent of high school graduating class
- 3.5 cumulative GPA out of 4.0
- 1200 SAT score/105 ACT sum score
- Top 20 percent of high school graduating class
- 3.5 cumulative GPA out of 4.0
- 1140 SAT score/100 ACT sum score
By imposing these requirements, the NCAA is preventing schools from using academic scholarships as a loophole to get athletes to compete at their school These requirements ensure athletes who combine athletic and academic aid truly deserve it. For this reason, athletes with impressive academics are especially valuable to coaches. If a coach is evaluating you and a comparable athlete to fill a positional need, good grades and test scores can give you an edge. The coach will make an offer to the recruit with better academics almost every time.
Set realistic expectations based on your sport
If you play a Division I head count sport, your athletic scholarship offer will undoubtedly be a full ride. Head count sports include Division I FBS football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s tennis, women’s volleyball and women’s gymnastics. All the rest are equivalency sports. This means the coach has a certain amount of scholarships they can divide up however they like. For example, Division I men’s soccer has a scholarship limit of 9.9 per team, with an average team size of 29. While some coaches might offer the entire team one-third of a scholarship, others might offer star recruits larger packages and fill the roster with walk-ons.
Take stock of available scholarships and grants
According to scholarships.com, there are over 3.7 million college scholarships and grants up for grabs — or roughly $19 billion in financial aid. While a college’s athletic program and admissions office can point you to financial aid packages offered by the school, these are just the tip of the iceberg. As an added bonus, most academic scholarships are guaranteed all four years as long you keep up your GPA and stay in good standing with the school.
Scholarships.com offers a helpful search tool to help you discover scholarships worth applying for. Fill in GPA, ACT/SAT scores, skills and interests. The search tool will generate a list of scholarships that you have a realistic chance of winning.
As you apply for scholarships and grants, keep track of important deadlines and requirements. Make sure to complete the entire application and turn it in on time. You may be the perfect candidate, but that grant you’re applying for may go to someone else if your application is sloppy or incomplete.
After you factor in scholarships and other forms of financial aid, compare schools based on your expected family contribution. Even if you go with the largest scholarship offer, you could still end up paying more if the college’s tuition is higher than the other schools. And always don’t overlook the importance of school fit — even if you qualify for a hefty scholarship, your family could end up paying more in the long run if you don’t like the school and decide to transfer.
Know when to negotiate
When it comes to scholarship offers, knowing when and how to drive a hard bargain can help you land a larger deal. In many cases, if you receive a partial scholarship offer for an equivalency sport, you have room to lobby for a higher amount. While you don’t want to offend the coach by asking for the moon, you should be honest and let them know if their offer just isn’t enough to make the school affordable for your family. Tell them the number you’re looking for. Depending on the situation, the coach may be able to find more money in their recruiting budget. And even if the coach can’t afford to increase their athletic scholarship offer, they will often be able to help you secure a generous academic aid package if your GPA and ACT/SAT scores qualify.
Yes, asking for more money can feel awkward or uncomfortable. And divulging your financial situation may not convince the coach to up the ante. For your best chance at moving the needle, you need to leverage offers from other schools. This is why it’s so important to pursue a large bunch of schools and diligently communicate with their coaches throughout the recruiting process. Ideally, you want to have at least five schools showing serious interest in you to negotiate your best possible scholarship offer. Remember — making up an offer to use as leverage is always a bad idea. College coaches will ask one another if the offer claimed by a student-athlete is legitimate. If they discover you are making it up, both coaches will pull their offers.
If a verbal scholarship offer is less than you’re looking for, take some time to mull it over. As you negotiate with coaches and consider different offers, keep an eye on the roster for injuries, transfers and players graduating. If the team has a sudden vacuum at your position, they may come back to you with a more generous offer.