College Scholarships for Student Athletes

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College applicants face increasingly high tuition rates. Forbes magazine reports that between 1989-2016, college costs rose nearly eight times faster than wages. By leveraging their unique talents and skills, college-bound students can apply for scholarships to help pay for their degree. Learners with exceptional athletic abilities can also pursue athletic scholarships. 

However, scholarship applicants face stiff competition. According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), only about 2% of high school athletes win a college athletic scholarship. Most college athletes do not win full tuition awards. 

Because institutional athletic scholarships typically only cover part of college expenses, student athletes should also seek supplemental forms of aid. In addition to federal and state grants, many learners qualify for scholarships based on academic achievement, financial need, intended major, and other factors. 

Our guide explores the college athletic recruitment process and highlights some of the many available student athlete scholarships.


College Athletic Scholarships FAQ

  • How many students receive athletic scholarships to play their sport in college?

    Most high school student athletes (98%) do not receive scholarships to play sports in college, according to the NCAA. Consequently, high school athletes may not receive enough financial support to cover all costs associated with college.

    The average NCAA scholarship falls just short of $9,000. Scholarships for sports like baseball can be as low as $2,000. For sports with the highest scholarships factored in, namely football and basketball, the average award amount only increases to between $10,000-$11,000. Tuition and other college costs at NCAA colleges and universities range from $20,000-$50,000 annually.

  • Do all college athletes receive scholarships?

    Most student athletes do not receive a full scholarship for college and rely on other school-sponsored or private funding. Outside of school-sponsored athletic scholarships, student athletes may qualify for sports scholarships from private companies and sports organizations. Athletes can receive scholarships based on their sport, overall performance in high school, or community service.

    Colleges and universities offer academic scholarships to student athletes with strong educational backgrounds. They may also provide scholarships to students in certain fields of study or from specific high schools and backgrounds. Additionally, private scholarships, available through corporations, agencies, institutions, or other autonomous entities, offer student athletes financial support for their academic achievements.

  • Who is eligible for a student athlete scholarship?

    The NCAA includes three divisions of college sports. Division I and Division II colleges and universities, mostly large public institutions, offer athletic scholarships. Division III schools, primarily small colleges, do not provide financial assistance to student athletes.

    The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), includes smaller public and private colleges and universities. The NAIA holds less stringent academic and athletic standards than the NCAA, offering students increased opportunities to play sports but with less exposure and financial support.

    Students who play junior college sports participate in the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). Schools in the NJCAA, two-year community colleges, provide moderate amounts of funding to student athletes.

    In addition to athletic scholarships through schools in the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA, student athletes may qualify for additional scholarships and funds through the associations themselves. The NCAA offers awards to student athletes pursuing a graduate degree or completing their undergraduate degree after exhausting all other athletic funding. The NCAA also provides support to Division I schools through its Accelerated Student Access Program to help student athletes succeed academically.

Four Ways Student Athletes Can Increase Their Chances of Winning Scholarships

Winning a college athletic scholarship requires both talent and dedication. Understanding the process and staying proactive can increase students’ chances of success. While athletic scholarships vary by sport and institution, our basic tips can help aspiring college athletes stand out in this highly competitive arena.

  • 1. Start Early and Do Your Research

    Advance research can help college-bound athletes clarify their goals, make informed decisions, and focus on the best opportunities for their unique circumstances.

    NCAA Division I schools typically maintain sizable athletics budgets. These institutions may offer full-ride headcount scholarships for revenue-generating sports, including men’s football and basketball and women’s basketball, tennis, volleyball, and gymnastics. Equivalency scholarships—typically for partial tuition—apply to other Division I sports and all Division II sports. Division III institutions do not offer athletic scholarships, but may award non-athletics aid.

    Division I and II students receiving athletic scholarships must meet NCAA eligibility requirements. The NAIA and the NJCAA maintain their own eligibility rules.

  • 2. Make Connections

    Regardless of the strength of students’ athletic achievements, they may not translate into a college athletic scholarship unless scholarship decision-makers can hear about them. Thoughtful networking practices can help students get the word out and form beneficial relationships with recruiting college coaches.

    Students can email coaches with their athletic resume, a link to their highlight or skills video, and an engaging note describing their interest in the college’s program. A follow-up call may help cement the connection. Social media provides an additional forum to showcase accomplishments and help recruiters get a more holistic view of an athlete’s character and personality.

  • 3. Excel in the Classroom

    Athletic scholarships provide many students a route to earning a college degree. While competing in athletics demands time and attention, student athletes should not neglect their academic success. 

    Eligibility requirements for NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA athletic programs include academic standards such as minimum GPA and SAT or ACT scores. The NCAA requires student athletes to complete a series of specific core courses in high school. 

    Students must meet these requirements to enter athletic programs. They must also demonstrate satisfactory academic progress to continue in their sports. Poor scholastic performance can result in losing scholarships.

  • 4. Be Active

    Students can increase their chances of winning a college athletic scholarship by building their athletic, academic, and extracurricular profiles during the recruitment period. They should remain engaged with the recruitment process by visiting colleges and reaching out to coaches. Participating in community service and leadership activities allows them to demonstrate character and motivation.

    Attending camps and combines—performance skills assessment events—shows student athletes’ commitment to their sports. Recruiters often attend these events to discover and assess potential players. Athletes can also keep themselves on coaches’ recruitment radars by reaching out when they generate new stats or achievements through camps and combines.

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Scholarships for Student Athletes

In addition to institutional athletic scholarships, students with athletic experience may qualify for many other scholarships, whether or not they join their college team. As a form of gift aid, scholarships do not require repayment. In the next section, we highlight some top sports- and fitness-related scholarships.

  • BigSun Scholarship

    This annual college athletic scholarship benefits high school seniors and currently enrolled college students. All student athletes can apply, regardless of their major or sports participation level. The application essay invites students to reflect on how playing high school sports influenced their career goals.

    Award: $500
    Deadline: June 19, 2021

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  • Donald De La Haye 'No Regrets' Scholarship

    Funded by former college football player Donald De La Haye, this scholarship supports college-bound high school seniors pursuing sports careers. Applicants must describe themselves in a one-minute video that includes clips demonstrating their athletic ability. The selection committee chooses one annual recipient.
    Award: $5,000
    Deadline: March 31, 2021

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  • Iron Company Fitness and Education Scholarships

    This scholarship benefits incoming first-year college students pursuing fitness careers. Applicants need a minimum 3.0 GPA and must attend a four-year program in exercise science, physical education, health, or related majors. The selection committee chooses one recipient annually based on academic merit and on qualities of character displayed in the application essay.
    Award: $2,000
    Deadline: June 1, 2021

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  • Michael Moody Fitness Scholarship

    This scholarship provides funding for students majoring in a variety of health- and fitness-related disciplines. High school seniors and full-time undergraduate and graduate students can apply. Applicants should demonstrate exceptional academic achievement, leadership experience, and involvement in school and community activities.

    Award: $1,500
    Deadline: August 1, 2021

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  • National Strength and Conditioning Association Foundation Minority Scholarship

    NSCA’s scholarship encompasses several opportunities for students pursuing sports science careers. The merit-based minority scholarship caters to graduate and undergraduate students of ethnic minority backgrounds. Applicants need NSCA membership and must major in a discipline related to strength and conditioning. Application materials include transcripts, essays, and recommendations.

    Award: $2,000
    Deadline: October 15 annually

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  • National Strength and Conditioning Association Foundation High School Scholarship

    One of many NSCA scholarships, this award benefits graduating high school seniors preparing for careers in the strength and conditioning field. Applicants must demonstrate a minimum 3.0 GPA, community service, and acceptance into an accredited school. Qualifying majors include exercise science, sports studies, and various health science disciplines.

    Award: $2,000
    Deadline: October 15 annually

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  • Positive Coaching Alliance Triple-Impact Competitor Scholarships

    PCA sponsors over 100 annual student athlete scholarships for current high school juniors. Applicants should embody the organization’s values of self-improvement, leadership, and dedication to sport. They need a minimum 2.5 GPA and must answer a series of essay questions. Applicants must also provide three references, including recommendations from a coach and a school administrator.

    Award: $1,000
    Deadline: May 31, 2021

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  • Sara Scholarship

    Female high school seniors involved in golf at any level qualify for this scholarship. Applicants need a minimum 3.3 GPA and must demonstrate financial need and good character. Recipients can renew their scholarship for up to four years, provided they adhere to scholarship parameters and maintain both full-time enrollment and at least a 2.1 GPA.

    Award: $2,000
    Deadline: April 30, 2021

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Resources for Student Athletes

Students seeking athletic scholarships can access many support resources, including the ones listed below. These organizations oversee college athletics in the United States.

  • National Collegiate Athletic Association The NCAA regulates and organizes college athletics at over 1,000 higher education institutions. The association's functions include funding and organizing championships, formulating rules of play, and establishing eligibility criteria. The organization provides student athletes with financial assistance, wellness and insurance services, academic support, and career counseling. Its three divisions serve almost half a million college players.

  • National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics A college athletics association founded in 1937, the NAIA serves over 77,000 student athletes. The association embraces a mission to build character in its athletes, based on core values of integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship, and servant leadership. The NAIA administers scholarships, sets eligibility standards, organizes showcase events for prospective college athletes, and sponsors national championships.

  • National Junior College Athletic Association The NJCAA governs intercollegiate athletics programs for two-year colleges. The association's programs support about 60,000 players at these institutions. NJCAA student athletes compete in 52 national championships in 16 sports. The association administers student athlete scholarships, sets eligibility criteria, and provides academic and career support.

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