Financial Aid

3 Myths About Athletic Scholarships

3 Myths About Athletic Scholarships

Part of our daily conversations with families at NCSA Athletic Recruiting is mythbusting.

Unfortunately, we don’t have rocking mustaches, and we don’t really have the budget to explore as many things as that other set of mythbusters you might be thinking about.

But we always try to help student-athletes and their families set expectations and understand what the college recruiting process is all about.

Including how to pay for college.

That’s why we’re excited about this article about the elusive full-boat scholarship by Kelley Holland and John W. Schoen over at CNBC. (Shout out: Our founder and CEO, Chris Krause, and vice president of marketing, Ryan Wells, both contributed interviews and statistics for the article.)

Here’s the glass half full: more than 460,000 student-athletes participate in NCAA sports, and receive–combined–around $3 billion in athletic scholarships.

But for many high school students and their families, the glass looks less than half empty. Less than 10 percent of high school students go on to play in college—just about seven percent of cross country and track and field athletes. And depending on the level of play, the average athletic scholarship ranges from $0 (Division III) to less than $15,000 per year (Division I).

Overall, colleges and universities awarded more than $3 billion in athletic scholarships in 2013 but very few of those were full rides. In most sports, coaches are allowed to divvy up scholarships. In 2013, the average amount of money awarded to NCAA Division 1 athletes was $13,821 for men and $14,660 for women. Other divisions offer less, and Division 3 schools offer no athletic scholarships at all. [Holland and Schoen]

You can click through to see the CNBC article, including a really cool chart where you can find out how much students receive on average, depending on their sport and division of play.

It’s important to pierce the confusing cloud of college finances and think strategically to find the best resources for you and your family. We wanted to unpack some of the statements–like $3 billion in scholarship or that DIII will offer no athletic scholarship. Let’s dispel some of the top misconceptions we often hear from athletes who are getting ready for college.

Misconception 1: I thought athletes got full rides to college.

Only certain programs must give full scholarships to their athletes, in a system regulated by the NCAA, which divides sports into two groups:

  • Head count sports
  • Equivalency sports

Head count sports include men’s and women’s basketball, the kind of DI football teams you’d see in Bowl games on TV, and women’s gymnastics, tennis and volleyball. Other programs are equivalency sports, which means college coaches divide the amount of scholarship money among athletes.

Sometimes coaches offer an amount of full scholarships, but more often, several athletes share a portion of one full ride. How much a coach has to offer, and how the funds are distributed among teammates, varies by school.

Misconception 2: I thought I would get an athletic scholarship.

Division III schools don’t award athletic scholarships.

That doesn’t mean that athletes at those schools are paying for their education out of pocket. The NCAA prohibits scholarships based solely on athletic ability at this level.

Let’s take cross country for example. For the 5,935 men and 4,316 women who run cross country for DIII schools (according to the latest NCAA report), funds come from a combination of merit- and need-based grants and scholarships.

No matter what division it’s in, a school’s financial aid department looks at your grades, major and academic interests, other extracurricular activities, interest in work-study programs and other aspects of your personal situation (like whether you’re the first person in your family to go to college) to create a financial aid package for you.

Services like NCSA Athletic Recruiting’s one-on-one scouting evaluations can help you determine what kind of schools you should look at based on your qualifications and commitment to playing in college.

Misconception 3: I thought my family wouldn’t qualify for aid through FAFSA.

We can’t tell you how much we wish we could go to everyone’s house and look you in the eye when we say this: You should fill out a FAFSA form.

The FAFSA, the NCAA Eligibility Center and a school’s application are arguably the three most important forms you’ll fill out in the recruiting process. You need to apply to get into a school. Similarly, the NCAA Eligibility Center verifies that you’re qualified to run for that school. And the FAFSA determines your family’s expected contrbitution to your college education. If you don’t fill it out, you won’t be considered for a number of programs like Pell Grants, subsidized Stafford Loans or work-study.

The opportunity to be a college athlete is transformative. But it doesn’t take place in a vacuum. When you’re looking for the perfect fit school, think about where you’ll be able to pursue the major you’re interested in, and what combination of financial aid grants, opportunities and loans will work for you.

And if you have more questions? Fill out a recruiting profile so we can give you personal answers to your recruiting situation.

About the author
Andy McKernan

Andy McKernan is the content strategist at NCSA Athletic Recruiting. A content marketer with a background in creative writing, Andy brings several years of experience to NCSA.


  • I think this is very good information. More should be published before students become seniors in high school since the standard for NCAA is changing. More emphasis should be placed on the fact that grades in core subjects are crucial to being looked at not necessarily your entire GPA. I fell into all of these myths and did not realize until we started through the process how misinformed I had been and how misaligned my expectations were from the recruitung coach. It is very important to find the right school for what you want to be and the niche for what you can offer the school athletically. More needs to be written about transferring and how that works if the fit is not a good one for the athlete or the school. Track/field probably fall into the equivalency category. It has been very difficult to get a lot of money for women’s track.

  • As an NCAA Division 3 coach who is heavily involved in recruiting everyday, I’ve run across more than a few high school seniors who have these misconceptions, especially in my sport (track and field). I’m in SE Michigan, and some of these kids think that Grand Valley State University is going to offer them a full ride to run/throw/jump for them. Others think they’ll just walk-on at Michigan State. Our financial aid department does what it can, and honestly, some of the packages we award to the same kid have been equivalent to or better than a package they would receive at an NAIA or D2 school. I think more things like this should be presented to high school student-athletes (like Irma suggested) to get the word out. We are so exposed to the Johnny Manziels and the Julius Randles of the sporting world that these younger kids think that they’re just going to fall into the same scholarship category as they will. Just like any other message someone would want to make clearer, this is one that needs to be introduced to high schools earlier and a bit more often.

  • Thanks for your thoughtful comment, Derek. I just spoke with Alison Vincent, our head recruiting coach for track and field and cross country, who said: “I’m so proud of the work that we do to help our track & cross kids make the right decision for college –considering programs that they have never heard of before & looking at all the options on the table. Whether it is NAIA, NCAA D1, D2 or D3 or Junior College, I have student-athletes who compete at all levels and get great feedback from their experiences. One of the best parts of my job is to ring the bell for our kids who commit to a college & the roar of the crowd is no less intense for kids who choose a small D3 school than those who pick at top-tier D1 program. Just as the roar of the crowd at Nationals is no less intense for the winner of one division level over another.”

    Thanks for reading! – Andy

  • The information on this topic is very informative. My son is a Sr. In high school and plays football and we just learned about NAIA. We have gotten tons of interest from Dlll schools a few from Dll.
    I agree that more information needs to reach the parents and children. If families can get the infomation before the students Freshmen year it will enable them to be better prepared by their Jr. year in high school.
    Great article and comments!