OBTAINING A SCHOLARSHIP
"Athletes receive scholarships based on their likeliness to help the team place at championships."
It’s a great achievement to obtain an athletic scholarship that covers some or all of the cost of attending college. But, it’s not free money and you have to earn your keep. Athletes receive scholarships based on their likeliness to help the team place at championships. The standards for placing at championships vary depending on the athletic conference, with standards in the Power Five conferences (ACC, Big Ten, Big-12, Pac-12, and SEC) generally being the most competitive. If your current high school performance is equivalent to a conference-scoring standard, that makes you a good candidate to receive a scholarship from a member institution.
To keep the scholarship, you need to put in the effort to help your team every year. Your coaches expect that from you. While coaches might say that your scholarship is guaranteed for a number of years unless you commit a serious infraction, if they are dissatisfied with your work ethics, they could make you discontented to the point where you quit the team and free up the scholarship for another athlete. Also, teammates pay attention to the work ethics of scholarship recipients and could sour your experience if you are doing less than non-scholarship athletes. This is one of the compelling reasons for not announcing your scholarship details.
That aside, you should know that athletic scholarship offers could range substantially from one DI institution to another. In a rare case, one university may offer as much as a full ride for up to five years, covering tuition, room, books, fees, the most generous meal plan, and a stipend to spend on personal items. With track and field being an equivalency sport, many of the 12.6 male and 18 female full scholarships are divvied up among the cross country, indoor track and outdoor track athletes, with few athletes obtaining a full ride. From another university, the same athlete could be offered a back-loaded scholarship, where the value of the scholarship is scheduled to increase over time, when the athlete is expected to be more impactful in helping that team to score in championships.
That student-athlete, if exceptionally strong academically, may be encouraged to apply for particular academic scholarships that supplement athletic aid and even free up funds for other athletes. Academically strong student-athletes provide an added value by boosting the team average GPA. If applying to an Ivy League university, the same athlete, by rule wouldn’t receive any type of scholarship but instead, would be directed to apply for need-based financial aid that is independent of performance. Even in the absence of financial aid, some student-athletes choose to leverage their athleticism to gain admission to an Ivy where they are providing a value to the institution, because they believe there will be an advantage in long-term earning potential upon embarking on a career. Ultimately, being strong academically provides a myriad of options.
Furthermore, some scholarship offers by an institution could change dramatically over the course of one’s recruiting time frame. Until a Tender of Financial Aid is signed along with the National Letter of Intent (NLI), offers could be altered. Sometime into the process, you may be able to leverage offers from other institutions to maximize the scholarship you finally accept. Or, your athletic performance may improve significantly over the recruiting period, making a compelling case for a larger scholarship.
Fortuitously, scholarship funds may become available at a particular institution further into the recruiting period due to an existing athlete departing or when a high priority recruit rejects an offer. I watched that situation play out with two athletes I know. One was being aggressively pursued by a college coach, while the second wasn’t getting much attention by the same coach. After the first athlete announced his commitment to another institution, it was cool to see the second athlete abruptly receive an offer that was much greater than what he could have expected given the initial halfhearted reception from the coach.
On the flip side, many athletes have seen their scholarship offers reduced over the recruiting period. Year after year, I have heard of offers being reneged if a coach leaves, when a recruit delays accepting the initial offer, and for other reasons.
When it comes to maximizing athletic scholarships, you start by assessing your true value, and matching yourself with programs where your personal best times are within the range of their historically top ten times as well as competitive within their conferences. When prioritizing earning a scholarship, one strategy in the recruiting process might be to consider college track and field programs where you’re a big fish in a small pond—where your bad-day performance is still one of the top season’s performances for your institution.