What is an Athletic Scholarship? - Definition & Benefits

Instructor: Ashley Dugger

Ashley has a JD degree and is an attorney. She has extensive experience as a prosecutor and legal writer, and she has taught and written various law courses.

Many high school student athletes hope to secure a full-ride college sports scholarship, but very few do. Numerous types of athletic scholarships are available, and they differ between colleges and sports. This lesson looks at the various types of athletic scholarships.

Athletic Scholarships

Will is just one of the nearly eight million students who participates in high school athletics. He plays high school football along with approximately one million other high school students. He hopes to receive a scholarship to play football in college, but his chances are slim. Only around 2,500 players receive 'full-ride' football scholarships to Division I colleges each year.

Scholarships are financial grants given in exchange for a student's participation in a college sport. The money typically comes from the university's athletic revenues. Because the money is a grant, the athlete is under no obligation to pay the money back. However, an athlete must renew many of these grants each year, meaning the athlete has no guarantee of a scholarship for all four years. The athlete must meet certain terms to retain the scholarship, such as receiving a particular grade point average or achieving at a particular level in his or her sport.

The amount of the scholarship and the rules regarding the scholarship vary according to the size of the college and the sport. Let's take a brief look at some of the kinds of athletic scholarships. We'll consider some of the major scholarships allowable under the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, rules. The NCAA is a non-profit organization that governs the athletic programs at nearly 1,500 colleges and universities. The NCAA divides those college sports programs into three divisions: Division I, Division II, and Division III. However, the NCAA does not govern junior colleges and many smaller colleges.

Division I Head-Count Scholarships

First, let's take a look at Division I. The nearly 350 Division I schools have both the largest student bodies and the largest athletic budgets. Division I schools may grant full-ride athletic scholarships in certain cases. These are also the only schools that can grant multi-year scholarships. Will is hoping to receive a multi-year, full-ride scholarship. Full-ride scholarships cover most or all of the student's expenses, such as tuition, books, room, board and other college fees.

Many high school athletes hope to play in college.
high school athletes

Full-ride scholarships are also commonly referred to as head-count scholarships because colleges assign these scholarships based on the number of people, or 'heads,' that may receive the scholarships. The NCAA allocates that the largest Division I football programs, typically those that average 15,000 people in attendance at home games, may award 85 head-count scholarships at any given time. Let's say Will wants to attend Ohio State University, but OSU has 85 scholarship football players on its roster. No scholarship is available for Will until a player graduates or otherwise loses his scholarship.

Many other sports also use head-count scholarships. For example, Division I men's basketball is allocated 13 head-count scholarships, Division I women's basketball has 15 head-count scholarships, and Division I women's volleyball has 12.

Division I Equivalency Scholarships

Not all Division I athletic scholarships are head-count scholarships. Most sports also offer equivalency scholarships, which are almost always partial scholarships rather than full rides.

The NCAA still designates a certain number of scholarships per sport but does not require that colleges divide those scholarships per 'head.' Instead, all of the scholarship money for that particular sport goes into a pot that the coach can divide however he or she decides. This means more athletes receive scholarships.

Let's say Will's sister, Wilma, plays field hockey. The NCAA allocates 12 scholarships for Division I women's field hockey programs, but field hockey is an equivalency sport. That means Wilma's coach can give 12 players a full ride, or she can give 24 players each a half scholarship, or she can distribute any other combination of that scholarship pot.

Division I sports such as baseball, smaller football programs, golf and swimming are all equivalency sports.

Division II and III Scholarships

What if Will chooses to attend a smaller, Division II school? Around 300 colleges are Division II schools, usually with smaller student bodies and athletic budgets than the Division I schools. Around half are private schools.

Division II athletic programs are typically less demanding on the athletes, allowing those students greater freedom to participate in campus and community activities. All Division II athletic scholarships are equivalency scholarships, no matter the sport.

Division III is the largest NCAA division, with more than 450 colleges and universities. These schools are mostly private, academically elite colleges, and they are not allowed to provide athletic scholarships of any kind. However, many student athletes attend Division III colleges using merit-based scholarships or need-based financial aid.

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