Can You Get a Free Ride with Athletic Scholarships?

on January 10, 2017

The most exciting source of college money for teenagers who play sports is the athletic scholarship.


Being able to pay for college because you excel at hitting, running or swimming, or because you’re blessed with an uncanny free throw, is a lucky break.


If you’re interested in playing college sports – and getting paid to do so - you need to understand the unvarnished realities about athletic scholarships. Getting rewarded for your superior eye-hand coordination is possible, but it’s not as easy or as generous as you might assume.


You need to know the answers to these questions:

  • What kind of sports scholarships are available?
  • Which sports offer the greatest chance for full rides?
  • Are there good resources to research athletic scholarships?

Reality No. 1: The odds of getting a sports scholarship are daunting


Colleges award more than $3 billion a year in athletic scholarships, which sounds like a lot.


Only about 2 percent of each year’s crop of graduating high school athletes, however, capture sports scholarships among NCAA institutions.


According to the NCAA, 56 percent of athletes competing in Division I – which includes the nation’s sports powerhouse institutions – receive athletic scholarships. In Division II, which is primarily composed of smaller universities, 61 percent of athletes receive scholarships, but these awards are typically smaller.


More than 90 percent of athletic scholarships go to students in bachelor’s degree programs, as opposed to associate’s degree and certificate programs


Reality No. 2: Understand where the full-ride scholarships are


In Division I sports, so-called head-count sports offer the biggest potential for athletic scholarships.


In head-count sports, athletes typically either will receive a full-ride scholarship that covers tuition, room and board and books or they receive no funding.


Here is the breakdown of head-count sports for men and women’s sports:


Men’s sports

  • Football (85 scholarships)
  • Basketball (13 scholarships)

Women’s sports

  • Basketball (15 scholarships)
  • Tennis (8 scholarships)
  • Gymnastics (12 scholarships)
  • Volleyball (12 scholarships)

It is important to note that opportunities for athletic scholarships in college sports must be the same for men and women. Title IX of the Education Amendments of 1972 banned sex discrimination at colleges that receive federal funding. Since some colleges have many football scholarships, they might not have as many scholarships for men’s teams in other sports.


Reality No. 3: Most scholarships are sliced and diced


Beyond head-count sports, all other athletic programs are equivalency sports. The NCAA dictates how many scholarships a college can dispense, but they can be split up in any way that a coach wants.


Athletes that coaches are most excited about are the ones who routinely will receive the highest scholarship amounts. That leaves other athletes with smaller scholarships – some awards only cover textbooks – or none at all.


Examples: A Division I school can give the equivalent of 14 scholarships for women swimmers and up to almost 10 for men. Most college teams, however, have about 30 male and 30 female swimmers. The average men’s soccer team has a roster of 29 players but a maximum of 9.9 scholarships.


Tip: Keep in mind that the number of scholarships awarded is per team not just for incoming freshmen. So typically, only 25 percent of the scholarships would be available for first-year athletes.


Reality No. 4: Colleges don’t always fully fund their scholarship programs


Because of tight finances, many colleges do not give out the maximum sports awards. In an in-depth look at athletic scholarships in November, The Chronicle of Higher Education discovered that dozens of Division I programs award fewer than half of the scholarships they are permitted to give.


For example: In a recent year, the University of Cincinnati gave out less than three scholarships to members of its track team even though a Division I school can award 12.6. The average track team has 40 members. At North Carolina State University more than 200 of the university’s 558 athletes in 2014 had 20 percent or less of their costs covered by athletic scholarships.  


Tip: When checking out athletic programs, be sure to ask coaches how well his or her scholarship program is funded. You’ll also want to talk to current athletes on the team about their experience with scholarships.


Reality No. 5: A sports scholarship isn’t the only way to pay for college


When people imagine getting an athletic scholarship, they typically think about Division I schools. There are 346 institutions in this division that include the big sports powerhouses such as Ohio State University, University of Alabama, University of Michigan, Duke University and UCLA, which usually oversee big football or men’s basketball programs.


Another alternative is Division III colleges, which don’t offer any sports scholarships. The vast majority of them, however, give out merit scholarship, as well as need-based financial aid. These awards usually are larger than athletic awards. The NCAA calculates that 82 percent of all Division III student athletes receive average nonathletic aid of $17,000.


Many of the Division III schools are smaller private colleges but they also include prominent research universities such as Washington University in St. Louis, University of Chicago, Carnegie Mellon University and MIT.


It’s typically easier to get on a Division III team than a Division I team and the intensity of the programs aren’t as great. Although athletes at Division I schools are essentially employees of the institution, Division III athletes have the freedom to pursue other interests, to study abroad and to major in whatever they choose.


Tip: When you are evaluating what kind of college you’d like to play at, it is important to ask athletes at the individual colleges what their experience has been with the program including their time commitment.


Reality No. 6: NCAA institutions aren’t the only source of athletic scholarships


Outside the NCAA, nearly 250 colleges and universities are members of the lesser-known National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). The vast majority of NAIA colleges are smaller private colleges, which offer athletic scholarships.


Scholarships are also available through about 500 community and junior colleges belonging to the National Junior College Athletic Association. Exceptions are public community colleges in California that don’t offer any. These colleges formed their own association called the California Community College Athletic Association, with a dozen member colleges.


Reality No. 7: You need to do research


It can be confusing navigating the ins-and-outs of sports scholarships. An excellent site to check out during your research is


Here is just a fraction of the information you’ll find on the site:

  • Odds of playing varsity in each college sport
  • Average athletic scholarship limits for each sport
  • Colleges that offer each varsity sport and statistics about each of these institutions  

Lynn O’Shaughnessy is a best-selling author, speaker and journalist. Her book, The College Solution: A Guide for Everyone Looking for the Right School at the Right Price, is available on

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