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4 Myths About Athletic Scholarships

Deborah Ziff Soriano, Emma Kerr

Athletic scholarships are rare. Only about 1% to 2% of undergraduate students in bachelor's degree programs receive sports scholarships, says Kathryn Randolph, associate content editor at Fastweb, an online scholarship matching and search service.

According to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, more than 150,000 student-athletes receive around $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships each year.

For those who do receive sports scholarships, they can play a big role in helping families pay for college. Bruce Mesa Sr. knew a football scholarship could be a possibility when recruiters started visiting to see his son play as a junior at Catholic Memorial High School in Waukesha, Wisconsin. An offensive lineman, Bruce Mesa Jr. was one of the few in the school's history to play all four years on the varsity team.

Mesa Sr. knew his son wasn't going to play for a NCAA Division I school -- at 6'2" Mesa Jr. didn't have the height -- but by focusing on smaller colleges, Mesa Jr. received some generous scholarship offers.

[Read: Obtaining Athletic Scholarships at NCAA Division I Universities.]

"He got a very handsome offer from Saint Xavier," Mesa says, adding that Saint Xavier University's estimated cost of attendance at the time was more than $45,000 per year. "He had to take out a Stafford loan for $5,500. They paid the rest, but you do still have to pay a portion."

One of the biggest misconceptions among prospective student-athletes and their families is that everyone gets a full ride, says Joe Leccesi, recruiting coach manager at Next College Student Athlete.

Here are four myths about athletic scholarships that families should avoid.

Myth 1: Everyone on an Athletic Scholarship Gets a Full Ride.

The average athletic scholarship is about $18,000 per student-athlete, based on numbers provided by the NCAA -- an amount that typically won't cover annual college costs. Per U.S. News data for 2018-2019, the average tuition and fees at ranked public schools for out-of-state students was $21,629, and the average cost amounted to $35,676 at ranked private schools.

Only some sports offer full-ride scholarships. These are called "head count" sports, Leccesi says. In the NCAA, these include only football for the Football Bowl Subdivision, formerly known as Division I-A, and basketball for Division I.

For instance, an NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision team is allowed 85 scholarships per year for 85 athletes. These cannot be divided among more athletes, Leccesi says.

For women, basketball, volleyball, tennis and gymnastics offer full scholarships.

All other sports are called "equivalency" sports, which means the available scholarship money for each team can be divided among players. There are no restrictions on how many athletes can be on scholarship, and the allotted number of awards can be divided in whichever way the coach chooses, Leccesi says. This includes all other Division I sports and all NCAA Division II sports, NAIA sports and junior colleges.

Students should keep in mind that while Division I schools may provide multiyear scholarships, some awards must be renewed each year. Additionally, according to the NCAA, scholarships can be canceled at the end of the award period, or during the period if the student-athlete becomes ineligible, commits fraud, engages in misconduct or quits the team for personal reasons.

Because competition is stiff and not everyone will receive a full scholarship, prospective student-athletes often use self-promotion strategies to maximize their scholarship amount by engaging with teams and college coaches on social media.

Myth 2: Athletic Scholarships Are Only Available for Football, Basketball and Baseball.

Despite the myth that awards are only offered for a few sports, partial scholarships are available for everything from golf to water polo to rowing.

Lecessi says students should weigh a partial athletic scholarship against other financial aid offers. They may actually receive more financial aid from a school with a large endowment that can offer merit-based scholarships.

"Sometimes even when you get an athletic scholarship, it's not going to be your best financial offer," he says.

[Read: College Scholarships for Lesser-Known Sports.]

Myth 3: You Have to be Able to Play at the Division I Level to Get a Sports Scholarship.

Although NCAA Division I schools may be among the most prominent ones to offer athletic scholarships, talented student-athletes can look to Division II, junior colleges or other conferences for scholarship offers.

Mesa Sr. says his son found he got a more lucrative offer from St. Xavier, which is in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.

He says that an NCAA school "may tell you they want you to come play football, but they may only offer you 10 percent of your tuition and room and board."

Division III schools do not award athletic scholarships, but they do grant other forms of financial aid, Randolph says. Often, schools will take into account extracurricular activities, such as sports, when awarding merit scholarships, she says.

"These Division III schools have athletic teams, and they do want good players on their teams," she says. "They do take into account if a student is a student-athlete, and they're looking to recruit them to come to that Division III school."

[Read: Use Video Game Scholarships to Pay for College.]

Myth 4: You Don't Need Good Grades for an Athletic Scholarship.

When students sign a letter of intent to play at a school, Randolph says there will frequently be stipulations attached, such as maintaining a minimum GPA and good conduct. Randolph advises students to be aware of what they're committing to before they sign a letter of intent.

Mesa Sr. says it was clear that grades during the recruiting process and then for maintaining a scholarship were important to interested colleges. "It's a job," he says.

"They're paying for your education. They're paying for your food, room and board and everything else. Something is expected of you. You're going to go out and perform on the football field, but you're also going to be a person of character. You're going to be a good ambassador of the school."

To receive a scholarship from an NCAA institution, as well as practice and play freshman year, incoming students must meet NCAA academic requirements. Students must complete 16 core courses according to the NCAA's specifications and timeline; earn a 2.3 GPA in these core courses; meet the sliding scale requirement of GPA and ACT or SAT test score, which requires a higher SAT or ACT score if a student-athlete has a lower GPA; and graduate from high school.

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