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Which Athletes Get the Biggest Scholarships?

questions to ask college coaches

The ones who study most.

In the sports-obsessed United States, many families assume that the ticket to a hefty college scholarship is athletic prowess on the field, on the court, or in the pool.

Not so. 

Just look at the total numbers

Between the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) about $3.2 billion in athletic scholarships are dispersed every year.  While that might sound like a hefty chunk of change, the reality is, when you do the math and look at the overall dynamics of athletic scholarships, you’ll see that number can be misleading.

Remember that of that $3.2 billion, only approximately one-quarter of it will be available to graduating high school seniors.  With an estimated 54,000 incoming first-year athletes potentially receiving scholarships each year. That means that, on average, an athlete might expect to receive around $15,000 in scholarship dollars. Not bad, you may be thinking. But not the mother lode either when you consider the average cost of a college education.

Full-Ride Tuition Scholarships

Further, keep in mind that “full-ride tuition scholarships” only really exist for a few sports (men’s football and basketball, women’s basketball, volleyball and gymnastics). And for a few players in that sport, and that most athletic scholarships are only a fraction of those averages.  Note, too, that many players at all levels of varsity play are on their teams with no scholarship money, at all.  While Division 3 players never receive athletic scholarships, Divisions 1 and 2 teams carry several players who receive zero award dollars.

Academic Scholarships

Contrast all this with the facts and figures of academic scholarships.  Individual colleges and universities give away approximately $24 billion in scholarship awards. And the Federal government gives away another $22 billion in need-based aid.  About 13.2 million students attend four-year colleges and universities.  Obviously, if we did some math, the amount of money, on average, going to a student at a four-year college or university would be pretty tiny.

But it’s not distributed evenly—just as the athletic scholarship money is distributed unevenly, so too are academic scholarship dollars. No surprise: the best athletes (in certain sports) get more money than other athletes (in other sports).  The best students with the best grades and tests scores get more money than other students.

But which is the better bet?  Where should your son or daughter spend the most time and energy in order to get a better scholarship and reduce the cost of college?

Well, we’re betting on academics.

Here’s why. No matter what the scenario, having strong academic credentials is appealing for both colleges and college coaches. And yes, it can even help your child be recruited for that varsity collegiate spot on the team.

At best, college athletic recruiting is a crapshoot.  Even the most seemingly talented players may not get the kind of coach interest that they believe that they deserve.  Every year, every coach seeks something different for their team and needs that different something to varying degrees.  Depending upon how much they need it. And whether you offer it, the calculus of whether you’ll get recruited. And how much money you might be offered can change.  Add into this that many sports are not well-supported financially at many colleges. And that the large majority of sports are “equivalency sports” that have a bucket of money that has to be divided up across all players, and suddenly you have a recipe for total scholarship unpredictability.  Will your child get recruited?  Maybe.  Maybe not. 

Will your child get scads of scholarship money?  Highly unlikely.

On the other hand, everybody wants a good student. Many institutions are more than willing to provide significant scholarship dollars to get that high-flyer.  There is no gray here. No unpredictability.  No complicated calculation.  And, what constitutes a strong student is generally objectively agreed upon across all colleges? A solid performance in classwork as reflected by the high school transcript.  Contrast this to the subjectivity of athletic recruiting, and you’ll see why spending time studying may be a better bet than spending money on that extra session of private coaching.

Plus, coaches are desperate for good students that they can recruit since they help out the coach on many levels.  Coaches need to meet certain academic standards both with their recruiting class’ high school performance. As well as ongoing with their varsity team’s collegiate academic achievements.  Often, coaches will have what they consider to be “academic recruits”. These are players who may not be considered superstars in their sport. But who can help buoy the team in the classroom. And, yes, they get actively recruited to be on the team. (Though, admittedly, these players don’t usually get much in the way of large athletic scholarships. They often do get sizable merit scholarships because of the strength of their academics).

So, which athletes get the biggest scholarships?  The ones who don’t rely on their athletic prowess to be the main driver of their potential scholarship dollars and who study, study, study!
Andrea Aronson
Educational Consultant


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