Athletic scholarships are rare. Only about 1% to 2% of undergraduate students in bachelor's degree programs receive sports scholarships, says Kathryn Knight Randolph, associate content editor at Fastweb, an online scholarship matching and search service.
According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, more than 180,000 student-athletes receive around $3.6 billion in athletic scholarships in Divisions I and II each year.
For those who do receive sports scholarships, the funds can play a big role in helping families pay for college. Bruce Mesa Sr. knew a football scholarship could be a possibility when recruiters started visiting to see his son play as a junior at Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, Wisconsin. An offensive lineman, Bruce Mesa Jr. was one of the few in the school's history to play all four years on the varsity team.
Mesa Sr. knew his son wasn't going to play for a NCAA Division I school -- at 6 feet, 2 inches tall, Mesa Jr. didn't have the height. But by focusing on smaller colleges, Mesa Jr. received some generous scholarship offers.
"He got a very handsome offer from Saint Xavier," Mesa Sr. says, adding that Saint Xavier University's estimated cost of attendance at the time was more than $45,000 per year. "He had to take out a Stafford loan for $5,500. They paid the rest, but you do still have to pay a portion."
One of the biggest misconceptions among prospective student-athletes and their families is that everyone gets a full ride, says Joe Leccesi, senior manager of customer service and operations at Reigning Champs Experiences.
Here are five myths about athletic scholarships that families should avoid.
Myth 1: Everyone on an Athletic Scholarship Gets a Full Ride
The average athletic scholarship is about $18,000 per Division I student-athlete, based on numbers provided by the NCAA -- an amount that typically won't cover annual college costs. Per U.S. News data for 2020-2021, the average tuition and fees at ranked public schools for out-of-state students was $21,184, and the average cost amounted to $35,087 at ranked private schools.
Only some sports offer full-ride scholarships. These are called head count sports, Leccesi says. In the NCAA, these include only football for the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A, and basketball for Division I.
For instance, an NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision team is allowed 85 scholarships per year for 85 athletes. These cannot be divided among more athletes, Leccesi says.
Basketball, volleyball, tennis and gymnastics offer full scholarships for women.
All other sports are called equivalency sports, which means the available scholarship money for each team can be divided among players. There are no restrictions on how many athletes can be on scholarship, and the allotted number of awards can be divided however the coach chooses, Leccesi says. This includes all other Division I sports and all NCAA Division II sports; National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA, sports; and junior colleges.
Students should keep in mind that while Division I schools may provide multiyear scholarships, some awards must be renewed each year. Additionally, according to the NCAA, scholarships can be canceled at the end of or during the award period if the student-athlete becomes ineligible, commits fraud, engages in misconduct or quits the team for personal reasons.
Because competition is stiff and not everyone will receive a full scholarship, prospective student-athletes often use self-promotion strategies to maximize their scholarship amount by engaging with teams and college coaches on social media.
Myth 2: Athletic Scholarships Are Available Only for Football, Basketball and Baseball
Courtineé Walker, a freshman at Cornell University in New York, spent more than 16 hours a week practicing cheerleading in high school. Her hard work paid off when, in 2020, she was awarded the National Society of High School Scholars Student Athlete Scholarship.
"This scholarship was focused on how my sports participation benefited me and challenged me when it came to balancing my academics," Walker says, and it worked well for her situation because Cornell does not offer merit aid. "It's always worth submitting an application, because NSHSS offers internships and other scholarships, and they can offer aid throughout your college career and beyond."
Despite the myth that awards are offered for only a few sports, partial scholarships are available for everything from golf to water polo to rowing.
Lecessi says students should weigh a partial athletic scholarship against other financial aid offers. They may actually receive more financial aid from a school with a large endowment that can offer merit-based scholarships.
"Sometimes even when you get an athletic scholarship, it's not going to be your best financial offer," he says.
Myth 3: You Must Be Able to Play at Division I Level to Get a Sports Scholarship
Although NCAA Division I schools may be among the most prominent ones to offer athletic scholarships, talented student-athletes can look to Division II, junior colleges or other conferences for scholarship offers.
"When people think of athletic scholarships, they tend to focus on the career-track athletes at Division I or Division II schools," James W. Lewis, president of the NSHSS, wrote in an email. "It is important to know that there are college scholarships out there for accomplished high school athletes, even if they don't plan to pursue athletics in college or career."
Mesa Sr. says his son found he got a more lucrative offer from Saint Xavier, which is in the NAIA. An NCAA school, he says, "may tell you they want you to come play football, but they may only offer you 10% of your tuition and room and board."
Division III schools do not award athletic scholarships, but they do grant other forms of financial aid, Randolph says. Often, schools will take into account extracurricular activities such as sports when awarding merit scholarships, she says.
"These Division III schools have athletic teams, and they do want good players on their teams," she says. "They do take into account if a student is a student-athlete, and they're looking to recruit them to come to that Division III school."
Myth 4: You Don't Need Good Grades for an Athletic Scholarship
When students sign a letter of intent to play at a school, Randolph says, stipulations frequently are attached, such as maintaining a minimum GPA and good conduct. Randolph advises students to be aware of what they're committing to before they sign a letter of intent.
Mesa Sr. says it was clear that grades during the recruiting process and then for maintaining a scholarship were important to interested colleges. "It's a job," he says.
"They're paying for your education. They're paying for your food, room and board and everything else. Something is expected of you. You're going to go out and perform on the football field, but you're also going to be a person of character. You're going to be a good ambassador of the school."
To receive a scholarship from an NCAA institution, as well as practice and play freshman year, incoming students must meet NCAA academic requirements. Students must complete 16 core courses according to the NCAA's specifications and timeline; earn at least a 2.3 GPA in those core courses; meet the sliding scale requirement of GPA and ACT or SAT test score, which requires a higher SAT or ACT score if a student-athlete has a lower GPA; and graduate from high school.
Though these are the typical requirements, due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic, students who plan to enroll full time in the 2021-2022 academic year and play NCAA Division I or II athletics can forgo taking the standardized tests and remain NCAA eligible.
Myth 5: College Coaches Will Contact Players
Student-athletes looking to stand out in the crowded field of scholarship applicants should know that college coaches won't always initiate contact with prospective players. In fact, in some cases coaches are limited by NCAA rules from actively contacting students, Lewis says.
But, he says, "that doesn't limit a student or a student's coach from reaching out to a university coach."
"One of the most frustrating aspects of recruiting is not hearing back from a college coach," Lewis says, and this can be because the student is looking at the wrong college, it's the wrong fit for the student's stats or a coach is barred from reaching out to recruits.
Completing a college's online questionnaire and reaching out with updated stats whenever they're available can help athletic scholarship applicants stand out, Lewis says.
Scholarships for Student-Athletes
Scholarships exist for virtually every major sport. Student-athletes can review this table, which includes a few examples of athletic scholarships for participants in various sports.
Professional Bowlers Association
Massachusetts Youth Soccer Association
The National Gymnastics Foundation
National Society of High School Scholars
Alabama Golf Association
Women's Western Golf Foundation
Trying to fund your education? Get tips and more in the U.S. News Paying for College center.