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Betting on a sports scholarship to pay for kids' college? Don't

Parents bet on kids' sports for scholarships
Parents bet on kids earning sports scholarships, but odds are against it 00:58
  • 20% of U.S. parents with kids in sports programs expect them to win a college athletics scholarship, TD Ameritrade found in a recent study.
  • Many parents also tap their retirement savings, work overtime or even raid college funds to pay for coaching fees, equipment and other expenses that can easily add up to $500 a month. 
  • Statistics shows that only 11% of young people got sports scholarships to attend college in 2019.

With the crushing cost of higher education in the U.S. and student debt continuing to climb, many U.S. parents have a dream for their children: a college sports scholarship, and maybe even a lucrative professional career. In all but a few exceptional cases, however, it is an impossible dream, while the tens or even hundreds of thousands of dollars families invest in coaching fees, equipment and travel can drain bank accounts and disrupt parents' retirement plans. 

A recent study by TD Ameritrade found that a fifth of parents with kids in sports are either sure their child will win a college athletic scholarship or are counting on it -- another 30% are are "highly hopeful" or "fairly sure" of hitting the academic jackpot. At the same time, many parents say they spend $500 or more per month on youth sports, requiring them to cut back on family vacations and other expenses. Others work overtime, wrack up credit card debt, raid kids' college funds and dip into their own retirement accounts to pay for child athletics.

If the goal is to help defray the cost of attending college, that approach seldom pays off, experts say. 

"The finances don't make sense. Except for in a few sports. like football and basketball, scholarships are rare and partial," said Villanova University professor Rick Eckstein, a nationally recognized expert on youth and intercollegiate sports. "The financial payout is exaggerated in the eyes of families."

Parents -- especially dads -- are betting on their kids earning college sports scholarships, even when children are only middling athletes, according to TD Ameritrade. Indeed there is a widening gulf between parents' expectations of their children and the reality of college admissions. Only 11% of young people got sports scholarships to attend college this year -- that's down from 24% in 2016. 

The poll surveyed 1,000 adults with at least one child who played "club or elite competitive youth sports"  

"Families are assuming there will be a payoff scholarship-wise and a lot of misconceptions take place," Eckstein said. 

Chasing the dream

It's hard to know exactly many sports scholarships are awarded each year and what they're worth because, while public colleges and universities disclose that information, private schools tend to keep a lid on it.

"It's not a part of the everyday lexicon and discussions that take place within the recruiting framework or within the media, and a lot of exaggeration takes place," Eckstein said. "Someone will report that someone is on a scholarship, but they could be getting $12."

Youth leagues also perpetuate the notion that participation will lead to a full ride to college. "Coaches use it as a marketing tool -- it's purposeful and they use it to market various aspects of the sports industry," Eckstein said. 

Chasing the dream can disrupt family finances. Nineteen percent of parents with child athletes said they were wiling to, or already had, reduced their savings for retirement and other purposes, while nine percent said they would or had already cut back on money set aside for their kid's education, according to TD Ameritrade. Meanwhile, on average, parents of kids who play competitive sports spend twice as much time on their children's athletics as they do managing their own finances.

How can families tackle student loan debt? 03:47

"Delaying retirement or even not investing for retirement are sacrifices parents shouldn't make. While securing athletic scholarships is potentially a long shot for a child, for them, retirement will be happening at some point," said Dara Luber, senior manager of retirement at TD Ameritrade. 

For some families, the consequences can be financially disastrous. Psychologist Dara Bushman, who works with young athletes and their families, recalls one family that had gone into serious debt investing in their 12-year-old daughter's ice-skating career. "They overspent on lessons and the cost of competing and kept shelling out the money, and now they are in debt, had to sell their house and have gone into bankruptcy," she said. 

While the athlete in question is talented, there's no guarantee she'll fulfill her parents' hopes of her becoming an Olympian. "Their idea was that their child would hopefully be an Olympic competitor but it's not a known or set thing. The child is young and there are a lot of factors. She hasn't even hit puberty," Bushman said. 

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