What Is An Athletic Scholarship?

Updated April 12, 2023

What Is An Athletic Scholarship?

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Athletes Receiving Athletic Scholarships

In 2019, the U.S. had nearly 57 million K-12 students enrolled in public or private schools. About 8 million high school students participate in sports. But just under 500,000 students — about 6% — will play college sports at schools affiliated with the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). A fraction of college athletes can play professionally.

Receiving an NCAA athletic scholarship is often a dream come true for many students. It combines two big dreams for some people — going to college and playing sports, possibly as a full-time professional athlete. A full-ride scholarship covers tuition, room and board, and other on-campus expenses. Most athletic scholarships aren't full rides, however.

An athletic scholarship can reduce or cut out-of-pocket college expenses when combined with federal financial aid, grants, or academic scholarships. Each year, NCAA Divisions I and II schools provide over $3.6 billion in athletic scholarships and financial aid to more than 180,000 student-athletes. NCAA Division I schools may give students multi-year scholarships. Division I schools may even pay students to finish their bachelor's or master's degree after playing.

Getting and keeping an athletic scholarship depends on several factors. These factors include inherent athletic skill and performance, the sport, and the connections that coaches have with colleges and recruiters. Coaches and recruiters can influence who receives a scholarship, the amount of money awarded, and whether the student will receive a scholarship the next year.

Continue reading to learn more about how athletic scholarships work, how they can help pay for college, and suggestions on navigating the college admissions process as an athlete. We'll also mention a recent NCAA policy change that affects earning potential for student-athletes.

Athletic Scholarship Opportunities

Not all sports programs or colleges offer athletic scholarships. The NCAA's approximately 450 Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships. The D-III school policy showcases the NCAA's "unwavering commitment to the academic success of every student-athlete. The opportunity to play sports in college is a privilege, but we often forget taking part in collegiate athletics is also a choice," Sue Henderson, the NCAA's chair of the Division III presidents council, says in an open letter.

While the NCAA majorly influences college sports, several other collegiate-level sports associations exist. Like the NCAA's three divisions, the schools in other athletic conferences usually keep similar student enrollments. They may also share a geographic region. Only NCAA D-I and D-II schools, along with the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the National Junior College Athletic Association schools offer athletic scholarships.

National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics

The NAIA has 77,000 student-athletes at 250 schools, including two in Canada and one in the U.S. Virgin Islands. The organization awards students $800 million in scholarships. The NAIA plays in 27 national championships.

National Junior College Athletic Association

The NJCAA describes itself as "the national governing body of two-year college athletics." After the NCAA denied a group of California track and field coaches' participation in championships, the group formed a national athletic association for community colleges. The NJCAA has over 500 member schools in 44 states and awards full and partial scholarships.

The United States Collegiate Athletic Association

The USCAA provides intercollegiate sports competitions for small colleges. The organization has seven women's sports and eight men's sports. The USCAA offers two divisions for men's and women's soccer, volleyball, and basketball. USCAA members may also hold dual membership in other athletic associations. In those cases, the school follows the scholarship policies of their primary athletic conference association.

Obtaining an Athletic Scholarship

The idea of offering athletic scholarships to students began with college football teams in the late 1800s. But it took decades before athletic scholarship programs began to operate in a way familiar to most people today.

Because men's football and basketball have long dominated the college sports landscape, in 1973, the NCAA set a limit of 105 scholarships for football programs. This change aimed to distribute scholarship funds more equally, including to women's sports programs.

Under current rules, NCAA college football teams can list 125 active players on the roster. Not everyone gets a scholarship though. Division I-A schools may offer 85 scholarships for football. Division I-AA schools may offer 63 scholarships. But like the pros in the National Football League, college football teams can only have 11 players on the field at once.

High school students interested in receiving a college athletic scholarship must take foundational courses. These courses prepare students for the academic rigors of college. Foundational courses for prospective college athletes include English, a foreign language, and natural or physical science courses. Students also learn algebra, geometry, or statistics.

Next College Student Athlete, a recruiting site, suggests that student-athletes supplement their sports scholarships with academic scholarships. Poor athletic performance or an injury can result in losing an athletic scholarship.

Bad grades in high school or college can also jeopardize scholarship opportunities or even playing NCAA sports. Generally, high school students need a minimum 2.3 GPA to qualify for a scholarship. While in college, Division I athletes must meet their school's minimum grade point average requirements. Division II athletes must earn a 2.0 cumulative GPA yearly. Students must also complete a certain portion of their academic degree work each year.

The coronavirus pandemic affected how schools and students pursue and manage athletic scholarships. COVID-19 led to canceled games and seasons. It even led some schools to discontinue entire athletic programs.

According to one source, colleges cut over 300 sports programs within the NCAA, NJCAA, and NAIA. As a result, athletic scholarship availability may decrease in the future. The NCAA says 180,000 students annually rely on sports scholarships to support their education. College football, baseball, and basketball typically provide good scholarship funding. Volleyball and softball also usually offer good funding opportunities. Other NCAA-sanctioned sports include soccer, tennis, swimming and diving, golf, and gymnastics.

High school students who want to play sports in college must register with the NCAA to receive scholarships or compete at a Division I or II school. Official college visits or signing a letter of intent also require registration. While there's no deadline, the NCAA recommends that students register at the start of their junior year in high school.

NCAA Athlete NIL Decision

On July 1, 2021, the NCAA changed its rules. Before, students were not allowed to profit from their name, image, or likeness. For example, the policy prohibited students from agreeing to product endorsement deals or doing paid appearances or autograph sessions.

College athletes in all NCAA divisions can now monetize their name, image, and likeness (NIL). Previously, the NCAA required student-athletes to compete under amateur status. This status meant that students could not directly profit or receive compensation for anything related to their on-field play. By giving up the right to make money in college, many students hoped to profit as professional athletes.

But critics of this approach argued that very few college athletes go pro, thus depriving students of years of potential earnings for their performance. They also noted that in many instances, college athletes essentially work as pro athletes.

Industry insiders say the NIL rule change will funnel even more spending and money into college sports programs. In 2019, all NCAA athletics departments reported total revenue of nearly $19 billion. But little to none of that money ever lands in the hands of the star athletes responsible for generating those earnings.

According to Forbes, a student-athlete's potential to profit from the NIL rule change will depend on many factors. For example, the size of an athlete's social media following will play a significant factor in potential earnings. The management of an athlete's social media and individual brand will also affect earnings. In addition, an athlete's on-field performance will influence their ability to secure endorsement deals. Finally, local, state, and school-level rules may apply to how and when college athletes can potentially profit.

Earning potential will vary. But according to one report, by producing about 300 sponsored posts annually with 5,000 Instagram followers, you could earn $100,000. On YouTube, you'll need 1,000 subscribers and 24 million annual views to reach the six-figure mark.

Like twins Haley and Hanna Cavinder who play basketball for Fresno State, some athletes have hundreds of thousands of followers. With that fan base, their annual earning potential could reach $600,000, USA Today said.

Sports Illustrated reported that hundreds of athletes signed endorsement and branding deals almost immediately after the rules changed. Deals ranged from sponsorships and endorsements for single small events to "longer-term contracts to be the face of a regional or local business." Student-athletes also could profit from public appearances or autograph signing sessions.

In addition to the NIL decision, a recent ruling by the U.S. Supreme Court could also set the stage for college athletes to earn pay for their play — something still prohibited for now. The court ruling found that the NCAA's restrictions on "education-related benefits" violated the law. These benefits could include tutoring, scholarships, study abroad, or internships. Industry observers say this ruling could lead to college athletes receiving regular compensation for playing sports.

Portrait of Nate Delesline III

Nate Delesline III

Nate Delesline III is a Virginia-based writer covering higher education. He has more than a decade of experience as a newspaper journalist covering public safety, local government, business, transportation, and K-12 and higher education.

See Articles by Nate

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