Athletic Scholarship

Schools in the States offer athletic scholarships for talented players—here’s what to know if you’re trying for the team

Athletic Scholarship

Athletic Scholarship Tips:

If you are planning on paying for a college or university in the States by earning an athletic scholarship, it pays to understand how realistic that idea is and the details of athletic scholarships. Dreaming big is nice, but few student athletes are awarded athletic scholarships that pay for their entire educations.


What schools offer athletic scholarship?

NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division I and II schools may offer athletic scholarships. Schools in the NCAA’s largest classification, Division III, do not offer athletic scholarship.


NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) and Junior College (JC) schools also award athletic scholarship. The only exceptions are the Ivy League schools (where no athletic aid is given at all) and service academy schools.


At the NCAA level, there are actually fewer students who do not get a dime of athletic aid than those who do! Student-athletes who don’t receive athletic scholarship pay for postsecondary with other means, such as loans, grants, jobs, merit or academic scholarships.


What kinds of scholarships are available?

Commonly referred to as a full ride, a full athletic scholarship is when all of your tuition, room and board are paid for. The NCAA mandates that three Division I sports must provide full scholarships for a specific number of roster spots in order to maintain their D-I classification: football (85), men’s basketball (12) and women’s basketball (15). No other sports have such requirements.


Scholarships are renewed each year. It is very rare to not have a scholarship renewed unless you have broken school rules and are suspended from the team or you fail out of school.


Most other sports offer athletes partial scholarships. This is where the coach awards you a sum of money that pays for part of your college/university costs. This amount can increase or decrease from year to year, at times depending on your performance. More often than not, you will see an increase or your funding will stay the same.


What terms should I know?

Equivalency: For any sport other than football and men’s and women’s basketball, the NCAA determines how many scholarships a school can provide the financial equivalent in aid for.


For example, softball teams can have up to the financial equivalent of 12 scholarships awarded to their team in any given year. For a roster of 25 players, the coach will strategically divide the money up. Some players might get close to a full ride, others enough for books. It depends on how good you are and what the team needs.


The catch is that a college or university may choose not to fully fund a team, so that same softball program might only have the cash equivalent of five scholarships to divide among 25 players.


In cases where a coach is managing only a few scholarships and you are a very good student, the coach might realize that you can get more merit or need-based aid than he or she can offer you in athletic aid, and encourage you to enroll as a preferred walk on. This saves scholarships for other players who are not as academically strong.


National Letter of Intent: In order to add a measure of certainty in the recruiting process for both you and the college or university, a binding agreement called the National Letter of Intent ( assures you that a school will award you athletic aid for one full year, and assures the college or university that you will attend for at least one year. Membership by colleges/universities in the NLI is voluntary, but almost all schools that give scholarships are in it, including all NCAA schools.


There are rules that dictate when you can sign a NLI and rules in place to prevent abuse of the process. Once you sign a NLI, you will lose eligibility if you choose to attend another NLI member school. In football, the first Monday in February is always signing day, making it one of the biggest days of the year for coaches, fans and players, as it is the day they make their final decision.


Never sign a NLI in the presence of a college/university coach or before the official signing period has begun. If you are under 18, a parent or legal guardian must be present and co-sign.


Offer: Offers are simply verbal extensions of an athletic scholarship. Verbal offers are non-binding and can be rescinded at any time. If you are “offered” verbally, it is wise to request a letter stating the offer.


Commitment: This is the cousin to the offer. When you decided to accept an offer, you have made a commitment. Again, this is a verbal commitment and can be broken. This commitment is not binding until you have signed a NLI. Breaking a commitment is not a recommended practice, so do your homework first. Depending on the sport, once you make a verbal commitment, other coaches will stop recruiting you. For football or basketball, expect other schools to turn up the heat and try to get you to change your mind!


Financial aid is complex, and athletic scholarships are no different. Understand that an offer should be in writing, and if you do sign a NLI, it is binding. Depending on the situation, earning an athletic scholarship might not be your best financial aid option. Look at all the factors carefully, and make your decision as a student and an athlete!


Ray Lauenstein is the author of The Making of A Student Athlete: Succeeding in the Athletic Recruiting Process and the director of




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