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Financial Aid for Student-Athletes

everything you need to know about student financial aid

Student-athletes dream of landing, not just a coveted roster spot, but also a full ride athletic scholarship. However, according to the NCAA, only about 2% of high school student athletes receive an athletic scholarship at all, and most of these students only receive a partial scholarship that covers some, not all, of their college costs.

To help bridge that gap, many families apply for (and receive!) some form of financial aid. In this section, we’ll cover:

What is financial aid and how much does it cover?

What is financial aid?

Financial aid is money that can be used to pay for college. Though many families view financial aid as free money, there are different types of financial aid, and some need to be paid back.

How much does financial aid cover?

Most types of financial aid will help students cover a portion or up to 100% of their college costs. This depends on several factors, including when you file your FAFSA, your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), the school’s cost of attendance and financial aid department resources. Some colleges even automatically offer free tuition for students coming from families below a certain annual income.

Types of financial aid

There are dozens of different types of financial aid, but the most common are:

Other types of financial aid include aid for military families, federal student aid for international study (for U.S. students who travel outside of the United States) and even financial assistance from your local state.

Learn more about the different types of financial aid.  

FAFSA and how to apply for financial aid

What is FAFSA? The Free Application for Federal Student Aid, otherwise known as the FAFSA is an online form used to apply for financial aid for college and graduate schools.

Who is eligible for FAFSA? Any student going to college in the next academic year should fill out the FAFSA. Current high school seniors should complete their FAFSA as soon as possible after the application opens.

Who isn’t eligible for FAFSA? To be eligible for federal aid, a student must:

How to file FAFSA. Our partner FRANK Financial Aid makes it easy to fill out and complete your FAFSA in three easy steps. Check out their resources—designed with student-athletes in mind—here.

Why apply for FAFSA?

The U.S. Department of Education uses information from the FAFSA to determine eligibility for federal aid, including Direct subsidized and unsubsidized student loans, grants and work-study programs. The FAFSA also determines eligibility for aid on the state and college levels.

Completing the FAFSA is an important step in the college financing process. Families and student-athletes can miss out on opportunities for aid if they fail to apply. According to data collected from NerdWallet, $2.6 billion worth of financial aid went unclaimed by individuals who did not fill out FAFSA forms in 2018.

Insider Tip: Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for financial aid, you should still complete your FAFSA. Click here to learn why it’s so important to file your FAFSA, what types of questions are included on the FAFSA and everything you should know about federal student aid.

When is FAFSA due?

The FAFSA opens on October 1 for the following school year and can be completed at any time before the deadline. However, if you’re a current high school senior, we recommend completing your FAFSA as soon as possible after October 1.

There are several federal, college and state deadlines, or the last day you can file your FAFSA, to keep track of.

Federal Deadlines

College Deadlines

Each college may have its own deadline that occurs before the federal deadline. Check with the colleges you’re interested in to make sure you have the correct date. You may also want to check whether their deadline is the day they must receive your processed FAFSA or if it’s the date your FAFSA form is processed, since there may be a gap between the two.

State Deadlines

Each state has its own deadline. Most deadlines occur before the federal deadline. Find your state’s FAFSA filing deadline here.

Calculating the cost of college and need based financial aid


Need based aid is financial aid that you can receive if you have financial need (and meet other eligibility criteria). Unlike academic, athletic and merit-based scholarships, need-based aid is given out solely based on a student’s (or their family’s) financial circumstances.

To calculate financial need, students can subtract their expected family contribution (EFC) from their total cost of attendance (COA).

For instance, if your school’s total COA is 25,000 a year and your EFC is 15,000 a year, your financial need is $10,000.

 Check out our college cost calculator resources to learn more about your COA, EFC and how to pay for college using financial aid.

Cost of attendance (COA)

Your cost of attendance is the total amount it will cost you to go to school for one academic year before financial aid. This includes the cost of tuition and fees, room and board, textbooks, supplies and living expenses. Colleges adjust the cost of attendance annually, which means your cost of attendance will vary each year.

Watch former NAIA Head Coach Geoff Schabb break down what cost of attendance is, and what your cost of attendance does and doesn’t include.


Learn more about the cost of attendance.

Expected family contribution (EFC)

Your EFC is used by the state and colleges to determine your eligibility for federal and financial aid. Students are asked to provide specific information about their family’s financial circumstances, including taxed and untaxed income, assets and benefits to calculate a family’s financial strength. Your EFC also considers your family size and the number of family members (like older siblings) who will attend college during the same year.

Watch former D3 Head Coach Pam Monnier break down what Expected Family Contribution means, including how your EFC could be calculated. 


Learn more about the EFC and the EFC formula.

How much financial aid can I get?

The maximum amount of financial aid you can receive from filing your FAFSA is different depending on your college’s total cost of attendance. Your FAFSA considers your college’s COA and your family’s EFC to determine how much financial aid they’ll offer.

It is not possible to receive more need-based aid than your total cost of attendance, though some families do take out federal student loans to cover indirect college costs that aren’t factored into a college’s COA.

Your FAFSA can also offer non-need-based federal student aid, like a Direct Unsubsidized Loan or Federal PLUS Loan, that can be used instead of or in addition to other need-based aid options.

What is the maximum income to qualify for financial aid?

There are no income limits or cutoffs when it comes to who qualifies for financial aid. Anyone, regardless of income, should file their FAFSA. 

The FAFSA does determine your family’s EFC, which may be higher for higher-income families and lessen the total amount of federal student aid offered. However, colleges have their own financial aid departments that can determine how much financial aid each student is eligible for and may offer families grants, loans and other types of financial assistance.

A higher income doesn’t automatically mean a larger EFC. Your EFC also considers your family size, including how many family members are also or will also be going to college at the same time and other factors, like your parents’ ages.

What to do if you don’t qualify for financial aid

If you’re wondering how to pay for college if you don’t qualify for financial aid, you’re not alone! Families can choose from a few different options to pay for college, including:

Learn more about athletic scholarships.

Learn more about student loans.

Questions for parents to ask about financial aid

It’s important that student-athletes and their families establish a college budget early in the recruiting process. By asking the right questions, parents can help their athletes better understand the amount of financial aid they will need to attend their top schools. Watch NCSA recruiting experts, David Kmiecik and John Pugliese, break down 5 questions for parents to ask when considering the best financial fit for their student-athlete.

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