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Athletic Scholarships: Head Count Versus Equivalency

The most commonly known scholarship, also referred to as a “grant-in-aid,” is the full scholarship, or “full ride.”

The term “grant” is literal. This is not a loan, and students do not have to pay the money back. A full ride normally covers tuition, books, room, board, and associated fees. Bottom line: It’s a free education, which with today’s higher-education costs, is an extraordinary package. The average debt for typical students after college is about $20,000; imagine the foundation established by a student-athlete who plays sports for four or five years and emerges from college without owing a single penny!

Full ride athletic scholarships are generally reserved for high-level athletes. Approximately 70 percent of the decision to award an athlete with a full ride scholarship is based on the athlete’s ability and projectability (the athlete’s potential and expected future abilities) while about 30 percent of the decision is based on academics, character, work ethics, and intangibles.

But full-ride scholarships are only one of the two types of athletic scholarships a school might offer. The NCAA breaks sports into two categories—head count sports and equivalency sports. Students who are offered a scholarship to play a head count sport are being offered a full scholarship, while students who play equivalency sports might receive only a partial scholarship.

<<Fast Fact
An athlete who receives a scholarship to play a “head count” sport is always given a full-ride scholarship. An athlete who receives a scholarship to play an “equivalency sport” might receive only a partial scholarship.

Head count sports are those sports that generally bring revenues to the school. For men, revenue sports include basketball and Division IA football. For women, head count sports include basketball, tennis, volleyball, and gymnastics.

Any other sport is considered a “non-revenue” or “Olympic” sport, meaning the sport does not produce revenue for the school. Indeed, most non-revenue sports are at least partially funded by football and basketball revenues. In non-revenue sports, coaches typically divvy up their allotment of scholarships using the equivalency method. While head count sports have a set number of scholarships that must be awarded in full to one student, equivalency sports have a set number of scholarships that can be divided among athletes. A head count sport with five available scholarships will award five students five full rides, while an equivalency sport with five available scholarships might offer one student a full scholarship, divide the second scholarship among two students, the third among three students, the fourth among four students, and the fifth among five students. In other words, fifteen students must share the equivalency of five full-ride scholarships.

Equivalency scholarships are generally split so that the more important players receive a higher percentage of the scholarships. For instance, the top-flight softball pitcher might receive 95 percent of one scholarship while the back up outfielder receives only books. Students from out of town also fare better with equivalency sports than local students. Because in-state tuition is not as costly, most coaches in these sports prefer in-state students to pony up for tuition so they can save their resources for high-level out-of-state students.