How to Get Recruited Guide

Three Athletic Scholarship Myths That Will Affect Your College Search

Are you planning your child’s future based on a belief in one of these athletic scholarship myths? A common misconception is that an athletic scholarship will provide a free college education. However, most college athletes do not receive a full-ride scholarship. I know that is disappointing, especially if you have spent the evening surfing the internet and reading false promises of big money in athletic scholarships. Planning your child’s future based on reality instead of mythology is far more important – although less exciting – in the long run.

The search for a college athletic scholarship can be confusing and overwhelming. There are a lot of false promises out there. How do you know who to trust? Here’s a good rule of thumb: if it sounds too good to be true it probably is. The information you believe about athletic scholarships should be based on actual data and an understanding of NCAA or NAIA rules.

Here are three athletic scholarship myths you need to be aware of:

Athletic scholarship myth 1: Most college athletes receive full athletic scholarships.

How often have you talked with another parent whose child’s athletic career is the college savings plan? I hear this all the time. There are a number of dangerous assumptions in this plan. First, will these kids want to play this sport in five or ten years? Also, can you honestly evaluate whether a child will have the talent to compete in college when they are six? But the assumption we’re going to focus on is the scholarship myth that college athletes get a free ride.

Reality: Full scholarships are few and far between, especially outside of football or basketball. Many schools do not even allot as many athletic scholarships as the NCAA allows.

Head-count versus equivalency sports

Most Division 1 programs give out very few full scholarships. Headcount sports offer full scholarships. These include men’s basketball and football, women’s basketball, gymnastics, tennis, and volleyball. Every other sport is an equivalency sport. Coach’s have one lump sum of scholarship money to divide between their players at the coach’s discretion. So, rather than give the entire scholarship to a few players, most programs break the total amount into smaller scholarships in order to distribute the money to many players on the team. Read more about Division I Athletic Scholarships.

The situation in Division 2 and the NAIA schools is similar, except that the dollar amount is less. Finally, Division 3 schools offer no athletic scholarships in any sport but still offer competitive financial packages.

Don’t believe the scholarship myth that most college athletes receive full athletic scholarships. In Little Known Secrets About Athletic Scholarships, I cite statistics that about half of college athletes receive any level of athletic scholarships. Of those who receive a scholarship, many don’t receive an athletic scholarship of more than two thousand dollars. That’s the truth. Not much of a college savings plan, is it?

Athletic scholarship myth 2: Athletes on scholarship receive free educations.

This myth is similar to the first myth. But instead of focusing on how many athletes are receiving scholarships, this myth focuses on a free college education. Free! My child’s college of choice has a $60,000 per year sticker price and we’ll pay absolutely nothing. Really?

Reality: Let’s begin with rational thought. How many things in life are free? Seriously, stop right now and list all the amazing things you have that came for free. I’m guessing there aren’t many. Sometimes my wife uses coupons and comes home gloating about a free toothbrush. But a college education and a toothbrush aren’t in the same category. We can debate all day about the actual value of college education, nevertheless, a college education has a high advertised price.

Here are a couple of numbers from the NCAA Recruiting Fact Sheet:

  • Only 2 percent of high school athletes will receive a college athletic scholarship.
  • 59% of Division I athletes receive athletic scholarships – of any amount.
  • 62% of Division II athletes receive any athletics aid.

The average Division 1 recipient of an athletic scholarship saves about $17,000 annually. Compare that to an average annual price tag of $30,000 at Division 1 schools. A Division 2 athlete saves an average of $6000 per year from his/her total educational bill. That’s a significant scholarship, but it’s certainly not a free education.

Athletes who do receive a free education

This scholarship myth is based on some truth. There are NCAA athletes who receive full-ride scholarships that cover the cost of tuition, room, board, books, fees, and cost of attendance. In other words, there are athletes who are getting a free education. So what’s the catch? These scholarships are awarded to athletes in headcount sports in a fully funded athletic program (see above). To get a free college education your child must be the best of the best in one of a few select sports. Even then, keep these facts in mind as well:

  • Some Division I scholarships may be renewed on a year-by-year basis. There’s no guarantee your child will have that scholarship for four years.
  • If an athlete sustains a career-ending injury, they may lose the scholarship.
  • Athletes that are academically ineligible put their scholarships at risk.
  • Once the four years of eligibility run out, the scholarship runs out. Athletes who have additional credits to finish before graduation will no longer have a free education.

There are other reasons a student-athlete may lose their athletic scholarship. The main point here is that these few full-ride scholarships are not guaranteed for all four or five years.

All other athletes contribute to the cost of their education

If your child competes in an equivalency sport, this is where the scholarship myth really breaks down. As I said above, these coaches divide up a lump sum of money among all the athletes on their roster in whatever amount the coach chooses. The best athletes might be awarded a full-ride, some athletes might receive a $2000 scholarship, and a few won’t be awarded an athletic scholarship at all.

Another factor to consider is the precise definition of a “full-ride” scholarship. The true definition of a full-ride scholarship should cover tuition, room, board, books, fees, and cost of attendance. However, sometimes language can be imprecise. People may consider a scholarship that only covers tuition a full-ride. That would be a great scholarship, but there are many other costs associated with a university education.

Finally, the most important thing to keep in mind is that there are other forms of merit scholarships and need-based aid. There is far more money available for academic scholarships than for athletic scholarships. As you and your child work through the recruiting process with college coaches, patiently wait for the full financial aid package. Don’t fixate on the athletic scholarship. Check out my post Scholarships Are Great, But How Much Will You Really Pay. Look at the full package and the actual amount of money your student will owe after all scholarships and grants have been applied.

Athletic scholarship myth 3: Don’t choose a Division 3 school if you need scholarship money.

Some parents write off all Division 3 schools because these schools cannot hand out athletic scholarships. Do you consider Division 1 or 2 the best option for athletes? By choosing D1 or 2 your athlete gets an athletic scholarship and you get a good ROI on all the money you invested in competitive sports. True or false?

Reality: Like Scholarship Myth 2 this athletic scholarship myth is based on a kernel of truth. It is true that Division 3 schools do not offer athletic scholarships. This is a rule of the NCAA and applies to every Division 3 institution.

However, Divison 3 schools offer competitive financial aid packages. There are academic, merit, leadership, and need-based awards. Many schools offer attractive financial aid programs; they just don’t label a scholarship “athletic.” Don’t overlook a school because they cannot designate scholarship money as “athletic.” In many instances, the total financial package may be higher than you would receive from a program offering an athletic scholarship. Remember, focus on the final out of pocket cost.

Next, you’re wondering, “What about all the money I have invested in my child’s athletic career? Did I waste it?” Not at all.

Rather, the money you spent over the years may make your child a high-value recruit. The college coach becomes your ally and communicates to the admissions and financial aid departments how much they want your child to play for them.

To sum up: don’t write off Division 3. If a D3 coach recruits your child, encourage your child to talk to the coach and find out more. Once you walk through the process, you may discover a school is a great option.

Don’t let reality discourage you

Replace these athletic scholarship myths with a realistic understanding of the financial aid athletes receive. At the same time, do not let these realities discourage you. Division 1, 2, 3, and NAIA schools all offer competitive financial aid. Therefore, spend time finding the right school with the right total financial package. I would encourage you to find the best value you can, at a school you like. Forget about “athletic” scholarships and focus on the big picture.

Updated October 2019