Student Athlete Attending College

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Balancing School & College Sports

Student athletes juggle more demands than the typical college student. By the time their dormmates sleepwalk into their 9 a.m. class, student athletes have already run three miles, eaten breakfast and started the week’s assignments. They may be amateurs, but when it comes to juggling sports and their studies, many are forced to become pros quickly. This guide offers tips and expert advice on how to stay on top of your game in the classroom and on the court (or wherever you play).

College Scholarships for Student Athletes

Types of College Athletes

When people hear “college athlete,” most imagine D-I football or basketball players. They probably don’t consider the students playing Ultimate at the liberal arts school. Yet college athletes come in many varieties — from recruited NCAA elites looking to go pro to intramural participants taking a break from their studies to extracurricular athletes getting in some exercise here and there. Needless to say, school-sport balance looks different for each group. Here’s how the following groups of student athletes typically balance their days:

  • Varsity

    Varsity athletes wear the college name on their jersey, and their teams receive funds from the college’s athletic department. Since varsity teams play against squads from other colleges, the games and tournaments are regulated by sports associations. The main association for universities is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Smaller schools may be a part of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and two-year colleges join the National Junior College Athletic Association.

    Since it’s so large, the NCAA is divided into three divisions, with Division I being the most competitive. D-I schools recruit athletes and are required to provide student athletes with scholarships. Division II is much less competitive, although it’s not uncommon for top D-II athletes to play sports professionally after graduation. Division III colleges are the least competitive and do not offer athletic scholarships.

  • Club

    Like varsity teams, club teams play against other colleges. Unlike varsity teams, they’re almost completely student-run. Not only does that mean there’s no school-based financial aid for club members, but also that teammates have to organize their own games, pay for their own uniforms and perhaps even officiate their own games. Fringe or emerging sports, such as rugby in the U.S., are often played at the college club level. And categorization isn’t the same across all states – what might be a varsity sport somewhere, like lacrosse along the East coast, could be a club sport west of the Mississippi.

    Students who participate in club sports dedicate some of their week toward practice but don’t typically expect the daily practices and training sessions Division I athletes contend with. They must also budget time toward games and competitions, to the extent they’re able to arrange them. Some clubs are more intense than others. Successful clubs can lobby their colleges for varsity status, especially if there’s a strong network of clubs at other colleges to play against.

  • Intramural

    Like club sports, intramural competitions are quite informal. Like varsity sports, however, they’re organized by the college. What makes them different from both is that all the teams are from the same school. A group of friends, fraternity or sorority members, students from an academic department or the denizens of a residence hall might band together to form a flag football team or a soccer squad. Games are competitive but friendly and free of extended commitments.

    Students who play intramural sports typically don’t have to dedicate any time to practice — unless they have a zealous captain — and games are usually scheduled during evenings and weekends, when few students have class commitments. Most intramural seasons run for several months during the semester, with perhaps one game per week.

  • Extracurricular

    Every college allows students to access a gym, usually with weights, basketball courts and grass fields. Students can use these facilities during open gym hours as they wish — whether to run on a treadmill or find a pickup game. As such, students can be athletes during college without ever joining an official team. And they have total discretion over how much time they dedicate to staying fit.

    Many students also take it upon themselves to put together teams for extracurricular sports activities. These students typically play for fun, whenever everyone – or just a few, depending on the sport – can get together. There usually isn’t a strict schedule and students play more for the love of the sport and to take a break from classes, homework and other academic obligations.

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8 Benefits of Being a Student Athlete

  • Higher Graduation Rates

    In 2003, the NCAA introduced academic reforms that required Division I and II athletes to progress through their degree at a certain rate. By 2017, NCAA athlete graduation rates had gone from 74% to 87%. The federal government uses a different measure but still reported slightly higher rates for student athletes — according to ESPN, graduation rates among college athletes were at 67%, compared to 65% for students overall. However, prospective student athletes should understand that each college and team’s graduation rates vary

  • Staying in Shape

    Ah, the college cafeteria and its endless — and free! — supply of soda and soft-serve ice cream. Best of all, mom and dad aren’t there to tell you not to eat too much. Little wonder that by Thanksgiving break, many freshmen have put on weight. College athletes may not be able to resist some tasty desserts, but at least they’ll burn it off when training and practicing.

  • Prioritization Skills and Discipline

    Prioritization is a skill that many veteran working professionals still haven’t mastered. College athletes, on the other hand, have no other choice but to cut out the nonessential. “Being a student athlete, there are choices you have to make,” says Percy. “You can’t have the big party social life, be committed to your sport, get good grades and get enough sleep.

  • Valuable Skills that Translate to the Working World

    All that discipline comes in handy during career searches. “As an athlete we have grueling schedules, between trying to get enough sleep, staying on top of our studying and constantly reaching for peak athletic performance, we never really get a break,” says Olson. “Day in and day out we constantly have to be responsible with our time because we don’t have a ton of it, and the struggle between academics and athletics will always be a waging war no matter the sport or the school. However, it is also the reason we are hired by top companies right out of college, why so many athletes go professional and why employers might prioritize a collegiate athlete during an interview process. We’ve proven, for years, we can handle the stress of full workloads, time management, deadlines and teamwork.

  • Structure

    Speaking of time management, athletic schedules really do refine that skill. Percy says her time management was actually better during swim season. “As swimming got more relaxed and our schedules weren’t as rigid, I found it harder to be productive. When you have a deadline and have to get the work done in two hours, you find a way. When you have time to fill, the same work seems to stretch into six hours. After years of managing school work and pool work, I like the structure.

  • Scholarships

    Not every athlete is eligible for athletic scholarships, but those who are often welcome the opportunity to reduce their future financial debts and get a college education at a discounted rate.

  • Close-knit Community

    Winning and losing as part of a team is a life-altering experience. According to Olson, the biggest benefit of being a student athlete is the family and community you develop between your teammates, coaches and alumni. “Today, the majority of my connections originate from the rowing community,” she says. Percy agrees: “You get close to your teammates in a way that transcends friendship. The people I lived and trained with are some of the most important people in my life. We grew up together, they’ve seen me at my breaking points, and I know I can trust them.

  • It's Fun

    From an outside perspective, being a student athlete sounds grueling. And there are probably a lot of college athletes who say they’d hang up their shoes and pack away their uniform after senior year, if not before. But most still stick with it. Why? Because it really is fun. “To enjoy spending time physically working that hard sounds crazy, but I loved it,” says Percy.


To compete in NCAA-sanctioned sports, students must maintain both their amateur and academic eligibility. The former varies from Division I to III, but basically it means not accepting money to compete or benefits to sign with an agent. Students have to remain amateurs in order to retain academic eligibility. At D-I and D-II schools that equates to earning at least a 2.0 GPA and competing 14 to 16 core courses per year. (Students must also hit a prescribed standardized test score.) The NCAA uses a five-year clock, which allows students to compete for four years within five years of enrolling. Student athletes should register and get more information at the NCAA Eligibility Center.

NCAA Eligibility Center


As the amateur eligibility rules imply, college athletes do not get paid a salary to play. However, in 2014, under pressure from advocacy groups and court challenges from former players, the NCAA allowed five large conferences to provide money to students for things a scholarship won’t cover — including clothes and entertainment, known collectively as the “full cost of attendance.” Some schools can now provide athletes with several thousand more dollars per year, if they choose.


College athletes have their own advocacy group, the National College Players Association (NCPA), and their own labor organization, the College Athletes Players Association (CAPA). CAPA supported Northwestern University’s football team in its push to unionize in 2014. After the regional National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) in Chicago granted the team permission to unionize, the full NLRB dismissed the players’ petition. As of 2018, student athletes do not have the right to unionize as workers, though CAPA and others are pushing for it.

National College Players Association (NCPA)

Injuries and Medical Insurance

Schools typically require athletes to carry medical insurance to practice, do team workouts and play in games. Sometimes this insurance, which covers injuries, is paid for by the college. Students must check with their program to see if they have the insurance — and, if so, to what extent (and dollar amount) they’re covered. In cases of injuries that knock them off the team, students may lose their athletic scholarship, and with it the medical help from the school. That’s because most NCAA scholarships are one-year renewable awards (although the NCAA has allowed four-year scholarships since 2011). Superstars with a path to the pros can buy loss-of-value insurance that pays out in case of a catastrophic injury, but as of 2016 only two players have ever collected payments.

NCAA Insurance Resources

Time Limits

During the season, the NCAA caps the hours a student can participate in practices, workouts and games at 20 hours per week. During the off-season, it’s eight. Yet Inside Higher Ed reported NCAA surveys showed that players in some sports actually spend around 40 hours on athletic activities during the season. And college athletes can spend just as much time in the gym during the offseason as during the season. The NCAA has penalized school athletic programs in the past for requiring students to attend “voluntary workouts” during the off-season. If time limits aren’t being enforced, athletes have the right to register a complaint with their school athletic director, the commissioner of their athletic conference or the NCAA.

Inside Higher Ed

State, City and College Bills of Rights

In 2012, California became the first state to pass a student athlete bill of rights into law. The bill mandates that schools must pay insurance premiums and medical bills a full two years after low-income students are no longer eligible to play. Students are also entitled to a scholarship for an additional year after they are no longer eligible to play, if their team’s graduation rate is below 60%. Other states have floated the idea of a bill of rights, as has the city of Boston. In 2014, Indiana University created its own bill of rights for athletes. It includes a four-year scholarship commitment that can’t be taken away due to injury or performance.

Student Athlete Bill of Rights


Most of the apps that student athletes will find most helpful are the same apps all college students will find useful. Yet there are a few that athletes in particular may benefit from. Here are some that can help college athletes find balance — from time management tools to mindfulness apps:

  • ATracker
    A free app for iOS and Android (with a nominal charge to upgrade to the Pro version), this app helps students budget their time and see what percentage of their day is dedicated to different tasks. It’s great at showing students areas where they can reallocate some of their time.
  • Cold Turkey Blocker
    This free tool for Windows and Mac computers helps students stay focused by blocking their access to certain sites on Chrome, Firefox, Opera and Safari. Users set a timer and decide which sites to avoid, then the tool locks them out. It’s $25 to upgrade to a more robust version. (Turning off the phone is another story.)
  • Cold Turkey Writer
    Need to really jam to get a paper done? Cold Turkey Writer goes a step further than the Blocker, shutting off every app on the computer until the subscriber hits a pre-selected word count. Buy the pro version for $10 or bundle it with the Blocker Pro for $29.
  • Headspace
    A meditation app for people who have trouble meditating, Headspace delivers short sessions to help people reduce stress and sleep better. The first 10 lessons are free. A monthly subscription is a bit pricey, at $12.99. For something cheaper but less dynamic, try Buddhify.
  • HelloMind
    HelloMind is a Danish app that uses “Result Driven Hypnosis.” The full version is $12.99 a month and aims to help users improve self-esteem, get motivated, reduce stress, tackle fear, or several other issues. Each topic involves 10 half-hour sessions. Users can try before subscribing.
  • iStudiezPro
    A calendar specifically for students, iStudiezPro lets learners plug in class and sports schedules, track assignment due dates, and even monitor grades. The iOS and MacOS app integrates with iOS Calendar but is also available for Windows and Android devices. It costs under $10. The “lite” version is free.
  • myHomework
    A competitor to iStudiezPro, myHomework also syncs across devices. The premium version is $4.99, and a Basic version is free. Cheaper yet is School Assistant. Its premium version is $2.99, but it’s only available on Android devices.
  • stickK
    College athletes are competitive — so they hate losing money. That’s where stickK comes in. Students set a goal, sign a contract, find a referee to hold them accountable, and then put money on it (if they want). If they don’t meet their goal, their money goes to whoever they designated.

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