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Athletic Scholarships: Everything You Need to Know

Everything you need to know about athletic scholarships.

Receiving an athletic scholarship to compete at the college level is the ultimate goal for many student-athletes. However, there are plenty of misconceptions about how scholarship offers work—and how much aid student-athletes actually receive. College isn’t cheap, so understanding the details of this part of the process is important if you’re looking to lessen your college costs.

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Who gives out athletic scholarships?

Athletic scholarships are typically one-year agreements between the college and the athlete, although some are multi-year. They are offered at the NCAA DI and DII levels, as well as at the NAIA and NJCAA levels—combined, that’s thousands of schools. DIII colleges do not offer athletic scholarships, but many DIII student-athletes receive some kind of financial aid.

Athletic Association Number of Schools Number of Athletes Maximum Number of Scholarships
NCAA Division I 348 139,063 74,243
NCAA Division II 292 85,385 36,343
NCAA Division III 418 144,062 0
NAIA 260 56,354 25,778
NJCAA 464 53,248 41,195
Other 276 39,737 N/A
Total 2,058 517,849  177,559

Learn about the different division levels.

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How much scholarship money can you get?

Fewer than 2 percent of high school student-athletes are offered athletic scholarships, but it adds up to over $3.1 billion annually for DI and DII alone, so there’s certainly money out there. However, it’s important to understand that most athletic scholarships are not full rides. The amount you’re offered has a lot to do with your sport and whether it is a head count or equivalency sport.

  • Head count sports are always full rides. But they only include revenue sports: for men, that’s DI basketball and DI-A football; for women, it’s DI basketball, tennis, volleyball and gymnastics.
  • Equivalency sports usually hand out partial scholarships. It’s up to the coach to divide their scholarship money among athletes. That could mean they offer a full ride to one extremely high-level recruit (although that is rare), or it could mean they spread the money out among multiple athletes, which is much more common. Equivalency sports for DI men include baseball, rifle, skiing, cross-country, track and field, soccer, fencing, swimming, golf, tennis, gymnastics, volleyball, ice hockey, water polo, lacrosse and wrestling. For DI women, equivalency sports include bowling, lacrosse, rowing, cross-country, track and field, skiing, fencing, soccer, field hockey, softball, golf, swimming, ice hockey and water polo. All DII and NAIA sports are equivalency sports. This article details some ways coaches decide on scholarship amounts.

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How do you get a full-ride athletic scholarship?

Most student-athletes do not receive a full-ride scholarship—in fact, only 1 percent do. Still, full-ride scholarships as the goal for many athletes, as they typically cover tuition and fees, books, room and board, supplies, and sometimes even living expenses.

If you receive a scholarship for a DI headcount sport, you’re guaranteed a full-ride. But there are only six headcount sports. If you play an equivalency sport, you can increase your chances of getting more scholarship money. For example, if you fill a specific and important role on the team—such as a baseball or softball pitcher—you’re more likely to receive a larger offer. You can also use the leverage of multiple recruiting offers to get coaches to increase the amount they are willing to give you. Sometimes, just moving down a division level will get you more money. A lower-level recruit for DI might receive a larger scholarship at the DII level.

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Do Ivy League schools offer athletic scholarships?

Ivy League schools do not give out athletic scholarships—they only provide need-based financial aid. Coaches can help their prospective athletes obtain financial aid rewards, but they do not have any scholarship money to give out to them. In many cases, Ivy League schools are able to meet the majority of the cost of tuition; at most, families with an annual income less than $65,000 don’t make any contribution to their student-athlete’s education, while families with an annual household income between $65-$180,000 could be expected to contribute somewhere between 10 to 18 percent. In other words, don’t let a lack of athletic scholarship dollars deter you from pursuing an Ivy League education as a student-athlete.

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Do you have to get a scholarship to compete in college sports?

Typically, there are more spots available on a team than coaches have scholarships to offer. So, not getting a scholarship doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Student-athletes can walk onto a team, which means trying out without receiving a scholarship. Sometimes, athletes are asked to walk on, in which case they are called “preferred walk-ons.” You may also walk on to a team without a scholarship one year and be given a scholarship the next year, depending on your perceived value.

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How do you know if you’re eligible for an athletic scholarship?

In order to receive a scholarship to an NCAA DI or DII program, student-athletes must meet certain eligibility requirements. They require you to meet a minimum academic standard and be considered an amateur athlete. However, just because you meet the minimum requirements for the school you want to play at doesn’t mean you will receive a scholarship. Your chances for an offer increase the better your academics are. Note: The NAIA has its own eligibility center and requirements. 

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What happens if you get a verbal scholarship offer?

A coach may decide to extend a verbal scholarship offer at various points in the recruiting process. However, these offers are non-binding; they are unofficial verbal contracts between a coach and athlete. Nothing is set in stone until the student-athlete signs their national letter of intent.

Your student-athlete can verbally commit to an offer at any point. Keep in mind, though, that committing too early can put your student-athlete at a disadvantage if they change their mind about a program later. If they do receive an offer, they should, first of all, thank the coach. If the student-athlete decides to accept the offer, this is considered a verbal agreement and is also non-binding. It is also acceptable to ask for more time in making the decision. The benefit of giving a verbal commitment is that it simplifies your recruiting process. It sends a message to other coaches that the student-athlete has made a decision so they can stop pursuing them.

Insider tip: Although not official, student-athletes should take verbal commitments seriously. Breaking them can sour coaches’ opinions on the recruit.

Learn more about verbal commitments.

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Can an athletic scholarship be taken away?

Losing an athletic scholarship is the unfortunate reality for some college student-athletes. There are a few different situations in which this might occur:

  • Most commonly, the student-athlete might never have had the scholarship to begin with. Verbal agreements are non-binding; they do not guarantee you a spot on the roster or a scholarship. Even once you’ve signed your National Letter of Intent, your agreement might not include scholarship aid.
  • If you are injured, depending on the school you attend and whether it happened outside of games or practice, your scholarship can be pulled.
  • Coaches can decide not to renew your scholarship for the next year. This isn’t a case of the scholarship being “taken away” since they are typically only year-long contracts, but it can still come as a surprise to some student-athletes. Non-renewals can happen for various reasons, including a new coach joining the program, getting into trouble on or off the field, poor performance, etc.
  • If you are not eligible to compete for any reason—poor academics, not in good standing with the school, etc.—a coach is not likely to keep you on scholarship.

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What other kinds of scholarships can you get?

Because most college student-athletes do not have full-ride scholarships, it’s beneficial to look into earning an academic scholarship as a supplemental form of aid. There are minimum academic standards student-athletes must meet to be considered for an academic scholarship: a GPA of 3.5, and test scores of 25+ on the ACT or 1200 on the SAT. Remember, DIII schools only offer academic scholarships.

Insider tip: Academic scholarships are much more secure than athletic scholarships. You can lose your athletic scholarship due to injury or poor performance, but as long as you maintain your grades, you will keep your academic scholarship even if you are no longer playing.

There are also scholarship opportunities available outside of the school itself, including federal scholarships and those from corporations, nonprofit organizations and private providers. Go to to browse through the thousands of options.

By filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), you can also receive federal aid in the form of grants, loans and work-study funds.

As you navigate athletic, academic and other forms of financial aid, NCSA is here to help! Our recruiting experts are available to answer all of your questions and help you create your recruiting game plan. Simply give us a call at 866-495-5172.

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