Sports Scholarships: Why Great Athletes Still Need Loans

sports scholarships

Every fall, parents sign up their children for football, wrestling, and other sports. After school, they take their kids to practices and workouts. They spend every weekend at competitions and games.

Many young athletes hope that all the hard work and sacrifice will result in sports scholarships for school. But for the majority, college athletic scholarships are not a reality.

If you’re a high school athlete, the chances of getting a scholarship to play sports are slim. To pay for college, you may need to find the money elsewhere.

The limited number of sports scholarships available

Thousands of hopefuls and their families campaign throughout the season to get the attention of college recruiters and coaches — but only a very small number will get any form of scholarship at all.

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), only 2 percent of incoming college athletes will receive a sports scholarship.

Universities nationwide give out approximately $2.7 billion in college athletic scholarships each year. While that number may sound significant, the universities spread athletic scholarships across thousands of students. Most sports scholarships are only partial awards that cover a small portion of college costs.

Full scholarships are typically offered only by Division I schools. Division II schools offer partial athletic scholarships and Division III schools do not offer any form of athletic incentives.

Athletes can still qualify for other kinds of scholarships and aid based on academic merit and need, but sports alone will likely not cover the cost of attending school.

Moreover, if a high school athlete is a swimmer, track star, or lacrosse player, college athletic scholarships are even harder to find.

Full scholarships are nearly impossible to get, and partial scholarships are intensely competitive. Universities most often award full sports scholarships to men who play football or basketball and women who play volleyball or tennis.

The gap between athletic scholarships and the cost of attendance

Many families think that athletic scholarships will completely cover the cost of attending college. Unfortunately, that is usually untrue.

The average value of a Division I scholarship is approximately $14,300, which is much less than the cost of tuition, fees, room, and board. The average cost of attendance for a public school is over $24,000, and costs exceed $47,000 for a private school.

That means there is a significant gap between the sports scholarship and what the student will owe. To fill the gap, the student typically needs to take out student loans.

The burden of college athletics

For those elite athletes who compete at the college level, the pressure can be enormous.

Colleges award scholarships on a semester-by-semester basis and base them on both academic and athletic performance. If you slip up or your performance goes down, you could lose your scholarship.

With all of their obligations, there’s little opportunity for socializing or extracurricular clubs. Many NCAA athletes say they regret how much time they spent in practice and wished they had more time for socializing.

While many students can offset the cost of college by working part-time, college athletes often cannot work due to their rigorous schedules. Being a college athlete is a full-time job. College football players spend 43 hours a week in practices or games, which means their other priorities are neglected.

Between practices, competitions, classes, and homework, there is little time left for a side job. For many, student loans are the only way to pay for the rest of their education.

College athletes often dream of playing professionally after college, but the chances of that happening are even slimmer than getting an athletic scholarship. Of the 480,000 NCAA participants, only a tiny subgroup ever makes it to the professional level.

For example, over 16,000 NCAA football players are eligible for the draft, but teams choose just 256. That means just 1.9 percent go on to the professional level. For this reason, focusing on academics and choosing a major wisely are essential to maximize career opportunities after graduation.

Keep in mind

If you enjoy sports, competing in high school is fulfilling and beneficial. But it’s important to be realistic about your future opportunities and focus on academics.

You are far more likely to get an academic scholarship than a sports scholarship, so by working hard to keep your grades up, you can lower your dependence on student loans.

For most athletes, college awards are out of reach. Research alternatives, take on student loan debt thoughtfully, and keep future goals in mind to get the most out of college.

If you need help understanding how student loans work and how to make the best decisions about borrowing, check out our guides to get started.

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