Head Count vs. Equivalency Sports Scholarships

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley is an attorney. She has taught and written various introductory law courses.

All college sports scholarships are not created equal. There are two types: head count and equivalency scholarships. This lesson explains the difference, including the definition of 'full ride'.

College Sports Scholarships

You might be one of the millions of high school athletes hoping to earn a college athletic scholarship. While there are over one million high school football players alone, only about 2,500 of those players will receive coveted 'full ride' athletic scholarships to Division I colleges each year.

The type and number of athletic scholarships available is governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA. Generally, NCAA Division I colleges are those with the largest student bodies and the largest athletics budgets. Most Division I programs are state universities, though some are large private schools.

NCAA Division II colleges tend to have smaller athletic budgets but still offer fairly competitive athletic programs. About half are private institutions but many are smaller state schools.

The NCAA also governs Division III colleges, but those schools cannot award athletic scholarships.

Head Count Athletic Scholarships

When people talk about athletic scholarships, they're usually referring to full ride scholarships. Unfortunately, these are the least often available.

A full ride is also known as a head count scholarship. It's a full scholarship that generally includes tuition, books, room, board, and other associated college fees. They are called 'head count' scholarships because they're give out based on the number of students, or 'heads', who may receive the scholarships.

For example, the NCAA allows the larger Division I football programs - those that average 15,000 people in attendance per home game - 85 head count scholarships. These football programs are known as the Football Bowl Subdivision, or 'FBS'. Let's say the University of Southern Blue Bell is an FBS school with all 85 football scholarships filled. If 15 players graduate or otherwise leave USBB's program in May, the school can award football scholarships to no more than 15 new players after that time.

Head count scholarships, like all athletic scholarships, are merit-based one-year contracts and must be renewed annually. If you are awarded a head count scholarship, there is no guarantee your full ride will last throughout your college career. Athletes often lose their scholarships due to injuries, academic ineligibility, coaching changes, and disappointing performances.

Which Sports Use Head Count Scholarships?

Generally, only revenue generating sports have head count scholarships. These are the sports that, across the board, make money for schools.

The NCAA allows head count scholarships for only the following Division I sports:

  • FBS football programs
  • Men's basketball
  • Women's basketball, tennis, gymnastics, and volleyball

More women's athletic programs have head count scholarships than men's. That's because football programs receive the lion's share of men's head count scholarships. But, overall, about the same number of men and women athletes receive head count scholarships.

Equivalency Athletic Scholarships

Now let's take a look at the most common kind of athletic scholarship, equivalency scholarships. All Division I sports not designated as head count sports are equivalency sports, as are all Division II sports. In general, equivalency sports are considered to be 'non-revenue' sports. They include many Olympic sports such as swimming and rowing - competitive, but not money makers.

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