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How do athletic scholarships work…If I told you, I’d have to kill you…

The idea and pursuit of athletic scholarship is one that has perplexed and frustrated potential student-athletes and their families for years. As a college coach and former college athlete, I have been on both sides of this issue. I have worked with both non-athletic scholarship and scholarship institutions. Each provides a positive and negative setting in the dialogue that happens between coaches and their recruits. So, let’s get started on trying to undo the mystery!

Some key points of understanding:

o There are so many different methods of providing scholarships within all the possible divisions, that it will be impossible to speak to every single option. This will be the best generalization I can provide.

o It is probably best you don’t try and get your potential college coach to try and tell you how or why they scholarship the way they do…they likely can’t or won’t tell you…Colleges are a business. Coaches and athletic departments are restrained by the budgets and business model of their respective institutions. We would give full rides to get all the players we wanted all the time, but most all of us can't.

o There are many factors that effect the level of athletic scholarship a coach may be able to give you based on your academics, FAFSA, and other specific institutional policies. All final financial aid packages will not look the same regardless of your level of athletic scholarship.

What are athletic scholarships?

Athletic scholarships are additional financial aid provided to potential student-athletes (PSA) based on their participation in a specific sport at the institution offering the financial scholarship. These scholarships are generally offered by the coaching staff and applied toward the financial aid package of the PSA. Athletic scholarships can be offered at the NCAA D1, D2, and NAIA level. However, not all programs at these levels provide the same amount of scholarships to their athletes and their programs. The amount of scholarships a school or program can offer can be relative to the institution, conference, and overall governing body of the program. The amount scholarship can certainly be directly related to the value a college coach sees in you as an athlete, but there are many other factors in play that this article is meant to dive into as well.

Where do athletic scholarships come from?

Athletic scholarships, their total amount and backing, are a financial decision made by individual institutions. The common misunderstanding from most people is that these scholarships are backed by financial support, in vast majority of cases they are not. They are in fact a discount that the school provide PSA’s toward their tuition bill without that money returning to the university or program. In rare occasions and some very lucky schools or programs are these scholarships supported by a grant or endowment. Lastly, the most common misconception of athletic departments finance is that all athletic departments bring in profit to an institution. The truth is that most athletic departments bring an overall net negative to a college’s overall budget in revenue per year. You can certainly pick your major “big” schools to point out their massive stadiums, full arenas, and TV deals to prove that money is brought in, but they are the minority across the college landscape…we can’t all be Texas (Hook ‘em Horns!). The flip side of this is that athletic departments do increase the profile of institutions and help to bring in the general population (non-athletes) into a college and some colleges (especially small schools) rely on student-athlete populations to maintain their overall student population and budget. Wow…that was wordy! To make it simple, big schools use athletics to bring in non-athletes, small schools use athletics to bring in more students (often athletes).

How does a coach decide who and what to give?

There are very few programs and sports that solely provide full scholarships or are even capable of doing so (remember…budgets and giving free stuff don’t usually mix well). Most coaches have to spread a certain amount of total scholarship across their entire roster.

Using D2 women’s soccer as an example:

Total Scholarships allowed per team: 9.9 (by NCAA rules for D2)

· One scholarship equals cost of attendance for student

Cost of attendance means tuition + Fees + Housing

Some schools do not count housing in this equation, some do.

Fees are relative to the institution.

Some allow FAFSA and Pell grants to over this amount…others don’t.

Confused yet?

So, a coach with all 9.9 grants available to him or her can take the academic (and possible need based) grants given a PSA has been awarded one, and add a portion of the athletic scholarship money made available to them on top of them to create an offer. (Adding athletic and academic aid is called “stacking”)

Side note…Not all schools allow stacking, some force the scholarship to be placed WITHIN the academic and need package, meaning it doesn’t add anything.

So, what’s the problem, just give me my money…

A coach must build an entire roster within the scholarship limits he or she is provided. At my first scholarship school, I was provided 3 scholarships out of a possible 9.9 to build a 25 person roster. Yeah…3. Why so few? That was the budget the department and school could afford. Remember, there is not a magic pile of money that supports these scholarships (most of the time). However, it is not always this simple. I have worked under athletic scholarship systems that have been based on total discount percentage of my entire team, the total revenue of my team (how much tuition dollars the group brings in), set scholarship limits (as previously described), and hybrid systems (that combine variations of these pathways) to reach roster goals from 24 to 45 players in the program. Lastly, to throw all of this into the mix, each admissions and financial aid department bring with it their own rules and regulations in how and when they will assist athletes receiving athletic scholarship outside of the “non athlete” institutional aid. For example, some institutions don't allow athletes to receive additional student aid if they receive an athletic scholarship. You do need a pretty good understanding of spreadsheets to rock this job…just saying…

I have literally been in situations where my best recruits were on the smallest athletic grants, as their academic, economic, and personal background made their package larger than if I would have given them more athletic aid (because of specific guidelines within an institution).

So what’s the point?

1. Don’t always equate your scholarship offer with your importance. Sometimes it is the best a coach can do in the moment or the best situation they can put you in. If it doesn’t work for your financial need, be honest and see if they can work with you. They will appreciate your candor.

2. Kick butt in the classroom and be proactive in your community and/or faith life. These things will add up and make you a more valuable candidate to recruit. To explain, if I must get two kids to the same place of total scholarship (and their talent is similar), I will likely take the one that uses less of my resources, as it helps me continue to build an entire roster. So being on high academic scholarships and having additional scholarship opportunities coming in helps you tremendously.

3. Educate yourself in the financial aid process ahead of time. It will help you find clarity sooner…We have that coming to you as well!

Bonus info: Do schools try and cheat the system?

Wait…what…people cheat sometimes? Never…Yes, there are schools, coaches, and athletic departments that find or actively look for methods of working “around” the spirit of the law (sometimes the actual letter of the law). Whether it is through magical academic awards for subpar academic achievement, the classic “leadership” scholarships, or well hidden grant applications that magically only end up in the hands of selected PSA’s... there are some sketchy things out there. Before you actively go hunting these programs out, please consider…If a coach, university, or athletic department is willing to cheat/be dishonest to get you…they are willing to do the same to get rid of you for the next opportunity as well. Ethics and character do matter.

- Coach


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