Scoring a College Athletic Scholarship

Last Updated Jun 2, 2009 5:59 PM EDT

Truth be told, you haven't amassed a whole lot of
money to pay for your kid's college education. And, what savings you
do have recently dropped in value like a brick in a well. Your one ace in the
hole: your teen has always been a star on the playing field, and maybe, just
maybe, one institution or another, could give him — or her —
a scholarship to play basketball or golf or tennis.

While it's true that colleges dispense roughly $1
billion dollars in athletic scholarships each year, the chances of scoring big
money are miniscule. That is unless you've got a kid like Tyler
Hansbrough, who led his high school basketball team to two state championships
and nabbed scholarship offers from six schools, including the University of
North Carolina, 2009 NCAA champions. Still, you lose nothing by trying. And if
you know how the college athletic system works, you'll save yourself
and your teen a lot of time, money, and disappointment. Here's a
realistic guide that includes some surprising ways to snag money for your
talented jock.



Consider the Long Odds


Goal: Be realistic about where your kid can play
college sports.


Ruling the athletic scene is the National Collegiate Athletic
Association
, or NCAA, a voluntary group of nearly 1,300 institutions of higher
education. Its members fall into three divisions. Division I schools include
the largest and most recognizable sports powers, for example, Ohio State, Duke
University, the University of Florida, and UCLA. Smaller state universities, as
well as lesser-known private schools such as Queens College (N.Y.), Grand
Valley State University (Mich.), Truman State University (Mo.), and California
State University, Chico, belong to Division II. Only D-I and D-II schools can
dispense athletic scholarships. Division III schools, among them Brandeis,
Tufts, and Williams, emphasize academics over athletics and cannot under NCAA
rules offer athletic scholarships, although in practice they may take an
applicant’s sports participation into account when considering a
financial aid package. (Ivy League schools play Division I sports but offer no
athletic scholarships.)

The NCAA dictates the maximum number of scholarships a school
can dispense in any one sport. A school competing in Division I men’s
basketball, for instance, can provide no more than 13 full scholarships, while
the number of women’s scholarships in D-1 basketball can’t
exceed 15. (If schools had no limits, then the wealthiest schools would have an
edge on those with less money.) You can trace the gender advantage to Title IX;
it requires schools to achieve athletic parity by balancing the number of male
and female jocks, and it takes a lot of women to balance out a huge football
squad. Snagging athletic money at D-II schools may look easier, but NCAA rules
set the number of scholarships that can be given out even lower than in D-I
institutions.

The bottom line: only a small percentage of teenage jocks win
athletic scholarships. According to the NCAA, only 2 percent of high school
athletes, roughly 130,000 kids, bag a full or partial scholarship. An exhaustive
New York Times analysis of athletic scholarships
in 2008 determined that more
than 1 million boys played football in high school, but only 28,299 received a
scholarship in Division I or II. Girls faced adverse odds too. More than
600,000 competed in track and field (the most popular girls’ sport),
but fewer than 10,000 won a scholarship that was worth an average of $8,100 a
year. The average amount awarded for all sports was $10,400, but students could
receive far, far less. That’s only about half the $21,400 an
out-of-state student would have to pay at the University of Florida.

Some sports offer better chances for cash. Athletes with the
best chance of snagging a scholarship, for example, are women rowers. According
to the Times’ analysis, 2,359 high school girls rowed and 2,295
captured a rowing scholarship. Average amount: $9,723. For a chart that breaks
down the number of href="http://www.nytimes.com/imagepages/2008/03/10/sports/20080310_SCHOLAR_GRAPHIC2.html">high
school participants versus sports scholarships here.


Widen Your Search


Goal: Find the right athletic fit.


Scott Brayton, an independent college counselor in Bellevue,
Wash., who has worked with more than 600 athletes, advises parents to answer
these three questions honestly before aiming their kid at a D-I or top D-II
school. Is your teenager the best player on the team? Is he or she the best in
his or her league or in a tournament? Is he or she one of the five best players
in his or her position in his or her state and region?

If you can’t answer yes to each question, your child
still has a shot at playing collegiate sports, but not in front of a Pac-10 or
Big 12 Conference audience. Athletes who aren’t as skilled have
plenty of opportunities to receive significant financial aid packages but the
awards won’t be called “athletic scholarships.”
Another option: Division III schools. They pride themselves on placing a
greater emphasis on academics. There are 429 active schools in this division,
which makes it the largest collection of NCAA institutions. While these
schools, many of which are private liberal arts colleges, are prohibited by the
NCAA from giving scholarships strictly for athletics, they routinely award
financial aid and often merit money for good students
who just happen to have
athletic talent. Division III schools include Johns Hopkins University, Swarthmore
College, California Institute of Technology, and Carleton College.

Hot Tip

The Other Game in Town

Here’s another possibility: the 291 schools
belonging to the href="http://naia.cstv.com/member-services/about/members.htm">National
Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which operates in the
shadow of the mightier NCAA. More than 80 percent of NAIA members are smaller
private schools. “A lot of prospective athletes, parents, coaches,
and guidance counselors around the country don’t realize NAIA
institutions can offer financial assistance,” says Marcus Manning,
director of membership services.


Start Early


Goal: Make sure that your child meets eligibility
standards.


Kids cannot qualify to play in college under NCAA rules unless
they comply with eligibility rules. That means taking 14 core courses in high
school starting in the ninth grade. They include four years of English, four of
math, and so on — generally the courses he or she would have to take
to enter most colleges. In eleventh grade, a student should register with the href="https://web1.ncaa.org/eligibilitycenter/student/index_student.html">NCAA
Eligibility Center. In their senior year, kids must take either the SAT or
ACT, have files sent directly to the eligibility center, and also file a
statement saying that they are amateurs.


Create a Marketing Plan for Your Kid


Goal: Attract the attention of coaches.


“In this age of YouTube, you can be in the back woods
of Alaska and coaches can find you,” observes David Ridpath, an
assistant professor of sports administration at Ohio University. These are the
kids like LeBron James (if anyone is like the basketball superstar) who attract
media attention even in high school. But if your child’s athletic
accomplishments haven’t been noticed by coaches, he or she will have
to create his or her own buzz.

Athletes often assume they will be discovered at tournaments or
college showcases, but most students will have to reach out to coaches. Girls,
who are aiming for a high-level Division I or II program, can typically
approach coaches as sophomores, while boys should wait until junior year. Boys,
unlike girls, are often still growing in the later high school years. NCAA
rules don’t allow coaches to contact student athletes by e-mail until
their junior year, and they can’t make phone calls until the summer
leading into students’ senior year. There is no prohibition, however,
about students reaching out to coaches at any time.

Teenagers should consider creating their own Web site to tout
their athletic abilities. On the site, a student athlete could include a sports
bio, coach recommendations, upcoming tournament appearances, and video clips of
his or her performance. It’s easier for a coach to click on a
teenager’s Web site than fish through stacks of DVDs piled on his or
her desk. Students can e-mail coaches to let them know about their site and
follow up with phone calls and snail mail.

Plan B: If your child is supremely gifted, it’s likely
that coaches will find him or her, but most athletes are going to have to
market themselves.

Other Resources

Help for Hire

If you or your child can’t put together a Web site
with a highlight video, you can hire companies to do it for a fee:


Focus on Paying for College


Goal: Weigh athletic scholarship prospects versus
other financial assistance.


Remember that your major aim here is to get money for college,
not to turn your water baby into Michael Phelps — although that would
be great if it happened. Athletic scholarships typically are not as generous as
regular financial aid or merit awards that you teenager might be able to pick
up from other schools. Only four sports — football, men’s
and women’s basketball, and women’s volleyball —
guarantee full-ride scholarships. In those four, a student either gets a full
scholarship or none at all. Jocks in all the other sports, if they receive
anything, will probably get a partial scholarship. The coaches in these
programs essentially have a checkbook with a finite amount of cash, and they
decide how to stretch the money as wisely as possible. Sometimes that means an
athlete might only get an eighth of a full-ride scholarship or less.

So, while you’re pursuing athletic money, you
should also be looking for schools that might provide your teenager with
academic awards or need-based aid that has nothing to do with whether he can
hit a golf ball or break a breaststroke record.

Voice of Experience

Pinch-Penny Coaches

“A lot of parents are under the impression that
they will get tons of money for their little super stars. But coaches want to
get persons on the team by using as little money as possible.” —Tony
Amato, the women’s soccer coach at Rollins College, a Division I
school in Winter Park, Fla.


Don’t Give Up


Goal: Get a walk-on spot.


Even if athletes strike out during the recruiting season, they
still have a chance to play their sport in college — and eventually
grab a scholarship. Many coaches, including those in Division I, welcome
walk-on athletes.

The reception is particularly warm for women athletes. “I
will tell if you are a young lady the chances are very strong at every level to
walk on,” says David Ridpath, a former assistant athletic director at
a Division I university and an assistant professor of sport administration at
Ohio University. Joanie Milhous, the head field hockey coach at Villanova
University, agrees: “Most definitely a walk-on athlete can eventually
receive an athletic scholarship. If they prove that they are worthy of one and
have produced significantly on the field, the coach can choose to give that
student-athlete athletic aid.”

Final tip: After being accepted by a school, the student should
contact the coach and ask to be invited to his or her preseason camp.

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