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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.

Athletic scholarships during COVID-19 

It’s clear that the COVID-19 pandemic has had a significant impact on college sports. Not only have sports seasons been delayed and altered, but more than 300 sports programs across the NCAA, NAIA and NJCAA have been cut. While we need more data from college coaches and sports programs to fully analyze the effects of COVID-19 on current and future athletic scholarships, it’s likely that there will be at least a slight decrease in athletic scholarship availability in the near future. With that said, there are still things student-athletes can do to stay ahead of the pack and improve their chances of earning a scholarship. 

Everything you need to know about scholarships during COVID-19.

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Who gives out athletic scholarships?

Are full ride scholarships for all 4 years? No, 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.

Athletic AssociationNumber of SchoolsNumber of Athletes Maximum Number of Scholarships
NCAA Division I348139,06374,243
NCAA Division II29285,38536,343
NCAA Division III418144,0620
NAIA26056,35425,778
NJCAA46453,24841,195
Other27639,737N/A
Total2,058 517,849 177,559

Learn about the different division levels. For more on athletic scholarships, hear what former fifth-round MLB draft pick Kyle Winters has to say: Are athletic scholarships offered one year at a time or do they vary? Check out the video to see how prospective student-athletes may find their scholarship offer change from year to year. 

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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.

As a response to COVID-19, NCAA D1 Council adopted legislation that loosened regulation regarding need-based aid and academic scholarships being awarded to student-athletes. Starting August 1, 2020, teams in equivalency sports will not have any athletes’ need-based aid and academic scholarships count against the maximum athletic scholarship limit. Prior to this update, athletes had to meet certain academic criteria for their additional aid to not be counted against a team’s athletic scholarship limit.

This means student-athletes will not be limited in how much need-based aid and academic scholarships they can stack on top of their athletic scholarship. With school and family budgets being impacted by the coronavirus, this rule change should allow sports programs that have available funds to extend more money to families and athletes—especially at colleges with higher tuition costs. This also makes it more important than ever for potential recruits to obtain strong grades and test scores. This will allow them to secure more scholarship funds and aid even when athletic scholarship funds are not available.

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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:

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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 scholarships.com 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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