Patrick O’Rourke, a certified public accountant in Washington, D.C., has a young son who is very good at baseball. Over dinner with some friends whose children are also athletes, O’Rourke was told that his son should be playing lacrosse because there are better scholarship opportunities. Originally from Seattle and aware that there aren’t a whole lot of collegiate lacrosse programs on the West Coast — or even beyond the East Coast — he was dubious and decided to do some research on his own.
“There’s a lot of bleacher talk that goes on, and a lot of it is just wrong — especially where it comes to scholarships,” O’Rourke says. “Everyone thinks their kid is the best player on Earth and is going to get a Division I scholarship, and first they’ll find out that there’s a lot more competition out there than they think. Secondly, even if your kid is good enough to play at a Division I school, the scholarships are still very limited.”
His findings led him to create ScholarshipStats.com, which offers a comprehensive look into collegiate athletic programs and the number of scholarships they offer. It wasn’t only a great way to win a dinner argument — only 576 colleges offered lacrosse last season, compared with 1,673 that offered baseball — but it was a sobering reminder of just how unlikely it is that a high-school athlete will earn an athletic scholarship, never mind a free ride.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) notes that there are roughly 8 million high-school student athletes in the U.S. Of those, only 480,000 go on to play a sport at an NCAA school. All of those athletes are vying for a portion of the scholarship funds that the NCAA values at $2.9 billion. Some students will get enough money to cover tuition and room and board, but many will only get a partial scholarship. And college costs have risen a lot in recent years. According to the College Board, it costs an average of $20,092 to cover tuition, room and board for a year at a public college as an in-state student. At a private college, it costs an average of $45,385.
Table: Odds of getting an athletic scholarship for men
Table: Odds of getting an athletic scholarship for women
Only institutions in the NCAA’s Division I and Division II offer athletic scholarships. Members of smaller athletic associations like the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the National Junior College Athletic Association offer scholarships to athletes, but at a fraction of NCAA rates. In 2015, the $520 million those two lower-tier organizations offered student athletes was less than the $578 million offered by the NCAA’s Division II and was just a fraction of the $3.3 billion in athletic scholarships offered that year.
Just about the only student athletes assured full scholarships are those recruited for “head count” sports that assign full scholarships to the overwhelming majority of athletes on the team. Head-count sports include football, men’s and women’s basketball, and women’s volleyball (though women’s tennis and gymnastics sometimes fall into this equation). Division I schools offer as many as 85 full scholarships for football, 13 for men’s basketball, 15 for women’s basketball and 12 for women’s volleyball. The odds of getting a scholarship for each during the 2013-14 season, the last for which data were available, were 43:1 for football and women’s basketball, 57:1 for men’s basketball and 53:1 for women’s volleyball. The University of Notre Dame, for example, estimates the total cost of attendance for the 2017-18 school year (tuition, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and personal expenses) at $69,395. That’s roughly $5.9 million in scholarship money a year just for the storied Notre Dame football team. (Each school determines its scholarship dollar amounts on its own.)
The remainder of college sports have the option of dividing their scholarship money into partial scholarships. In Division I baseball, for example, teams can offer an average of 11.7 scholarships to a team of 35 players. As a result, O’Rourke says, a team may divide those scholarships into 26 or 27 partial scholarships to fill out a roster — with the approach varying widely by school.
Granted, some of those sports come with much better scholarship odds, but lots of fine print. Men’s and women’s gymnastics, for example, gave high-school students 20:1 and 24:1 scholarship odds, respectively. However, there were only 84 schools in the country with gymnastics programs last season, 70 that offered scholarships and just 15 with a men’s program.
Plus, as O’Rourke notes, high schools generally lack gymnastics programs and force young gymnasts to compete with pricey club teams — whose numbers aren’t included in the odds calculations. It’s a similar story for the too-good-to-be-true scholarship odds for men’s hockey (35:1) and women’s fencing (13:1), rugby (9:1), equestrian (3:1) and rowing (2:1).
“Everyone talks about how many rowing scholarships there are,” O’Rourke says. “The are 150 schools that offer rowing, there are 1,700 that offer softball, so you have a much better chance of your kid getting on a team with softball than with rowing.” (There were 2,080 rowing scholarships in 2013-14.)
It’s understandable why parents and students play the lottery with athletic scholarships. In 2016, the average college graduate left school with $37,172 in student-loan debt, according to college and scholarship site Cappex. That was up 6% from 2015, with debt carried by 70.1% of all graduates. That’s also nearly triple the $12,759 debt from two decades ago, when just 54% of all students graduated with debt.
The Federal Reserve Bank of New York put total student-loan debt at $1.21 trillion by the end of 2016. That increased $78 billion from a year earlier and trails only mortgage debt ($8.48 trillion) among all consumer debt. Worse, more than one in 10 student loans are past due, which exceeds even the delinquency rate for credit-card bills (7%).
Too much focus on playing just one sport?
But the push to get even a partial athletic scholarship is having some unexpected effects on kids. In a research paper published at the end of 2016, Texas A&M Ph.D. candidate Tek Dangi and A&M professor Peter A. Witt concluded that the increasing pressure on young athletes to specialize in one sport at a young age isn’t always having the desired effect. That approach is taking decisions out of kids’ hands, becoming a status symbol for parents, allowing coaches to prey on those parents’ vanity and, ultimately, tanking youth-sports participation. Tennis legend John McEnroe, founder of the John McEnroe Tennis Academy in New York, says that playing multiple sports can give kids a physical and mental break. However, when he advises parents that their kids shouldn’t just play tennis all the time, they treat him the way a younger, surlier McEnroe treated line judges.
“None of them, now, play other sports, which I think is unhealthy,” he told Alec Baldwin in 2014 on his Here’s the Thing podcast. “You’re heading these kids in a direction that so few succeed that, even if they do, they’re not equipped to handle it.”
The folks at Tracking Football noted that 222 of the 253 players selected in the 2017 NFL Draft played more than one sport in high school. The majority (62%) ran track, while 45% played basketball. Ohio State football coach Urban Meyer points out on ScholarshipStats that more than 80% of his recruits played more than one sport in high school. O’Rourke, meanwhile, suggests that money spent on traveling teams, camps, training and specialized coaches might be better invested in a 529 college savings plan that keeps earning money as your kids go to school.
There’s a lot more money available in academic scholarships
And there’s one bit of math that should skew the odds firmly against chasing athletic scholarships. While the total college athletic-scholarship pool may exceed $3.3 billion, the Education Department notes that there are upward of $13 billion in academic scholarships on the table in any given year. This doesn’t mean that athletics are unimportant, but coaches who don’t have a lot of athletic scholarship money to offer are more likely to back a prospective student for an academic scholarship if they are an asset to both the team and the school.
“Once you get to high school, you are on the clock,” Greg DiCenzo, baseball coach at Division I member the College of the Holy Cross, told ScholarshipStats. “Your grades freshman and sophomore year will be on your record when you start to look at schools in your junior year.”
If your academic record is as impressive as your on-field performance, playing a sport will open doors at schools with no athletic scholarships at all. The 447 NCAA Division III colleges don’t award athletic scholarships, but even the NCAA notes that 82% of all Division III student athletes get some form of aid or academic scholarship. Even better, those awards average $17,000 a year, which exceeds the average $14,270 and $15,162 in athletic scholarships offered to men and women, respectively, in Division I. Lastly, O’Rourke points out that Ivy League schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, but they do reserve 13% to 18% of their incoming classes for the recruitment of athletes — who could potentially receive academic scholarships.
Both the Cleveland Browns’ Desmond Bryant and the Brooklyn Nets’ Jeremy Lin received full academic scholarships during their playing days at Harvard. O’Rourke concludes by saying that even if sports don’t result in an athletic scholarship, they can help you get into a school with a low admissions rate and help coerce a school into throwing an athlete some academic-scholarship money if their grades hold up.
“There are a lot of extracurricular activities that everyone can do, but not everyone can play a sport,” O’Rourke says. “Not everyone can throw a baseball in the low 90s or kick a soccer ball accurately.”
Methodology for the graphics:
Statistics for high-school and college athletes don’t reflect club, travel and/or intramural sports teams. These numbers also don’t include foreign students who would also apply for the same scholarships, which can make competitiveness seem lower than reality.
The ‘Chances of a high-school athlete getting an athletic scholarship’ chart uses high-school data from the 2013-14 High School Athletics Participation Survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations. Scholarship totals are the computed maximum full-equivalent athletic scholarships available per NCAA and NAIA 2013-14 regulations. Many of these awards can be split into partial scholarships in any proportion up to the maximum allowed, so the actual number of awards (full & partial) are higher than the number presented.
‘Chances of playing college sports in the U.S.’ uses high-school data from the 2014-15 High School Athletics Participation Survey conducted by the National Federation of State High School Associations.
The ‘Number of foreign athletes by college sport’ chart is based on the foreign student (nonresident alien) participation on NCAA I varsity teams from the NCAA 2013-14 Race & Gender Demographics Database.
Jason Notte is a freelance writer based in Portland, Ore. His writing has appeared in the New York Times, the Huffington Post and Esquire. Notte received a bachelor’s degree in journalism from the S.I. Newhouse School of Public Communications at Syracuse University in 1998. Follow him on Twitter @Notteham.