Academics a Driver for Athletic Scholarships

Hit the books hard and you’ll increase your odds of landing an athletic scholarship. How so? The vast majority of athletic programs sponsored by the National Collegiate Athletic Association are considered “equivalency” sports. This allows coaches to offer partial scholarships based on a student’s athletic merit, which may be combined with academic-based or need-based dollars from the school’s admissions or financial aid office.

NCAA Division I and Division II colleges may provide athletic-based financial aid in 17 men’s sports, ranging from baseball to wrestling, and in 21 women’s sports, ranging from basketball to water polo. The NCAA sets the maximum number of athletic scholarships allowed per sport in each division. Baseball coaches, for example, have the equivalent of 11.7 scholarships available in Division 1 and 9 in Division 2. Since college rosters have more than 20 players, coaches must split up athletic-based scholarships, offering “quarters” or “halves,” for example, across the ball club.

The NCAA’s few “head-count” sports, by contrast, typically do offer “full rides” for athletes, but these are the most difficult scholarships to come by. Full rides include tuition, room and board, books and fees. For women, only basketball, gymnastics, tennis, and volleyball are head-count sports at the Division 1 level; for men, just basketball and the FBS-level of Division 1 football (the most competitive) allow athletic-based financial aid to cover all college expenses.

The annual undergraduate cost to attend the University of Denver, a hockey power, is $58,000. Overcoming the hefty price tag for families, said Ryan Peck, associate vice chancellor of external affairs at DU, is the college’s greatest challenge. “Good students are very important to our hockey team because we can offer them academic financial aid that won’t go against the NCAA limits for Division 1 hockey,” said Peck.

At Augustana College in Sioux Falls, S.D., head football coach Jerry Olszewski divides 28 scholarships among his team, which has more than 100 players on the roster. He gives no full rides and believes that very few coaches at the Division II level do. A player he recruits out of high school with a 3.5 GPA or a 25 on the ACT will qualify for both athletic and academic scholarships. “Do the best you can academically in high school,” Olszewski advises athletes, “so you can have the greatest opportunity for college aid.”

Private schools such as Augustana typically offer more academic aid than public institutions, knowing they need to meet or beat the lower base price of the public schools. Erik Lofdahl, founder and owner of Midwest Collegiate Scouting in Green Bay, Wis., works with the families of athletes seeking scholarships. He points out that academic financial aid does not count against the athletic budget for scholarships. That’s why coaches hope to find “stackable athletes,” those for whom colleges can stack academic financial aid on top of athletic aid.

“Going from a 24 ACT score to a 26,” Lofdahl said, “can mean the difference between an athlete’s family paying 75 percent of college costs to paying next to nothing.”