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How do college sports scholarships work?

Senior Bowl FootballHistory

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) started allowing formal athletic scholarships in 1957. At the time scholarships lasted for four years, much to the dismay of coaches and athletic directors.

Eventually, turmoil arose between then NCAA executive director Walter Byers, who served from 1951 to 1988, and the school athletic directors and coaches. This group of college personnel were irate at having to fund under-performing athletes or those who no longer wanted to play. The athletic departments wanted more power.

Consequently, in 1973 the NCAA limited all athletic scholarships to one year, renewable at the coach’s discretion. A New York Times story from 1973 summarized the rule change this way: “That plan” — the one from 1957-1973 — “was to prevent coaches from eliminating the players who did not do well on the athletic team. Now a coach can take away such a scholarship if the boy does not shape up athletically.”

It took nearly 40 years to reverse the 1973 decision to allow multi-year scholarships. But this time, the decision of a single year or multiple years was left to the discretion of the respective college/university.

Athletic Scholarships

Attending college is an expensive proposition. Any parent, except a very small percentage, would love their child to go to college on a full ride. Full ride scholarships enable recipients to attend college at little cost. Tuition, room and board, books, and certain fees related to courses are covered. Expenses that may not be covered include student fees for parking, fines, or the premium for a single dorm room.

These full ride scholarships are available to those who play what are called head count sports. In other words, those sports that generate revenue for the school. Obviously, fencing, swimming, nor golf bring in the mega-dollars football and basketball do, primarily from television contracts. In 2013, well over $10 billion was paid for the rights to broadcast college football games.

Imagine a parents’ son or daughter is a budding soccer star at the age of 8. The parents see scholarship in their future. But what are the odds of getting one? For the 2013-14 academic year, there were a total of 19 scholarships for soccer per member school in the NCAA Division I and II. Football had a total of 148 scholarships per member school for the same divisions. These numbers translate to roughly 138,000 total athletic scholarships available for Division I and Division II sports. Division II is an alternative to the highly competitive and more expensive schools in Division I.

The figure of 138,000 may sound like a lot, but it isn’t. For instance, more than 1 million boys play high school football, but there are only about 19,500 football scholarships. Nearly 603,000 girls compete in track and field in high school, but they’re competing for around 4,500 scholarships. Thus, the odds of winning a NCAA sports scholarship are minusculeOnly about 2 percent of high school athletes win sports scholarships every year at NCAA colleges and universities. 

For academic year of 2013-2014, the average athletic scholarship in the NCAA Division I men’s was $13,821. For women, it was $14,660-slightly more per student due to fewer athletes. The caveat is that, if one is fortunate enough to be granted an athletic scholarship, it may not be guaranteed. It’s incumbent on the student athlete to carefully read the fine print. A scholarship is a contract. The majority of athletic scholarships are still good for just one year, renewable on a coach’s decision. If the scholarship verbiage is worded as such, then this is tantamount to a performance contract. Should the athlete not meet the coach’s expectations, then the scholarship will not be renewed. 

It wasn’t until the summer of 2011 that the NCAA changed the rule from one year to multi-year scholarships. Though as stated above, few schools have adopted this rule change. For the student, the loss of the athletic scholarship leaves him/her with the financial burden to continue their education.

Conclusion

Even for the gifted athlete, scholarships are difficult to obtain. The competition is immense. The student athlete becomes an employee of the school. This is the current controversy in the big revenue sports of football and basketball. According to a NCAA survey in 2011, playing football required 43.4 hours per week and basketball required 39.2 hours per week. Sounds like business hours, not a place of higher learning.

 

 

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