Think athletic scholarships are a 'holy grail'? Think again

For many young athletes and their families, the dream of playing college sports is very different from the reality

Big money for kids sports
Big money for kids sports   

Stand long enough on the sidelines of any youth sports tournament and you will hear conversations about coaches, sports travel, and the cost of uniforms and gear.

What you may not hear about—but what parents say is a near universal obsession—is the dream of college athletic scholarships. "That scholarship is the holy grail," said Greg Earhart, a swimming coach at Arizona State University.

But does the reality of athletic scholarships match the fantasy? Hardly.

While tens of thousands of athletes will head off to visit colleges this fall hoping to be recruited, only a small fraction will make the cut. Even fewer will get scholarships. And for those who do end up playing in college, whether on scholarship or not, the experience may be very different from what they imagined.

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Just 3.3 percent of high school seniors playing men's basketball will have roster positions on NCAA teams as freshmen—with or without scholarships, according to NCAA data. For women, the figure is 3.7 percent.The odds are almost as slim in men's soccer, football, and baseball. The chance of getting an athletic scholarship is even smaller, even for students whose parents can devote the hundreds of hours--and thousands of dollars--that high-level youth sports often require.

Put another way, the odds of landing a college scholarship in many major sports are lower than the chances of being admitted to Harvard, Yale, Princeton or Stanford.

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Overall, colleges and universities awarded more than $3 billion in athletic scholarships in 2013, but very few of those were full rides. In most sports, coaches are allowed to divvy up scholarships. In 2013, the average amount of money awarded to NCAA Division 1 athletes was $13,821 for men and $14,660 for women. Other divisions offer less, and Division 3 schools offer no athletic scholarships at all.

"There's this great myth about how many scholarships there are out there," said Earhart.

There's also a lot of pressure on those who do get athletic scholarships. Long practice hours, diminished fan attendance, and life on a different schedule from most students can take their toll on young athletes—as can the physical intensity of the sport itself.

Heavy pressures

Becky Dionne in action
Source: Richard Rennie
Becky Dionne in action

Becky Dionne found out the hard way that college athletics were not for her. A competitive swimmer since age 6, she had been a stand out in her hometown of Hudson, N.H., and was named swimmer of the year three times in a row by the Nashua Telegraph. Her mother spent years shuttling her to predawn practices and attending her many competitions and meets.

When it came time to choose a college, Dionne looked for a school where she could pursue her interest in fashion marketing and also swim competitively. She discovered Savannah College of Art and Design at a college fair. After contacting the coach and visiting the school, she was offered a $15,000 athletic scholarship.

Dionne was lucky. Arizona State's Earhart found that only roughly 561 swimming scholarships were available for boys in 2013 and 1,037 for girls, putting the odds of a male high school swimmer receiving a college swimming scholarship at 1 in 48 and the odds for a girl at 1 in 31. (The NCAA itself is open about the slim chances of landing an athletic scholarship, warning in informational materials that "according to recent statistics, about two percent of high school athletes are awarded athletics scholarships to compete in college.")

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Dionne started college excited about swimming, but that changed quickly. She found it hard to make friends with her teammates initially, which made the eight weekly practices--many early in the morning--even tougher, she said.

(Other members of the team said they've had more positive experiences: Haley Thompson, a standout freestyle swimmer from Holland, Mich., with a scholarship that covers her tuition, said the team feels like a family and the coach is very supportive. A spokeswoman for Savannah College of Art and Design said that "our coaches promote the team values and they also promote our academic values. The coaching staff is always the biggest supporter of our talented students.")

Dionne's swimming times and her relationships with other teammates did improve over time, but she remained unhappy and told her parents she wanted to quit in the fall. Her mother encouraged her to finish the season, which she did.

But at the end of the season, Dionne left the team. She had to give up her scholarship when she quit, but in her opinion, it was worth it. "The words, 'your scholarship will be pulled' were some of the best I actually have heard in my life," she said. "Bring on the loans."

A matter of time

Nicole Sung-Jereczek, center
Source: Don Liebig | UCLA Athletics
Nicole Sung-Jereczek, center

Most athletes want to keep their scholarships, but the demands of high-level college athletics can be challenging.

Some students will end up transferring to other schools where they feel they'll be under less pressure or get more playing time, or both. In men's basketball (which has unusually high transfer rates), 14.5 percent of NCAA Division 1 players in 2012–2013 were transfers from 2–year colleges and 13.3 percent came from 4–year schools. Among female basketball players, 7.5 percent of Division 1 players were transfers from 2-year schools and 8.6 percent from four-year colleges.

Even for those who are committed to sticking with their teams, the amount of time required of them can be tough to manage.

Nicole Sung-Jereczek started rowing in high school, having competed as a gymnast through middle school, and found she loved the sport and the close teamwork. When she became a rower at UCLA after being recruited with a scholarship covering about three–fourths of her costs, many things about the team exceeded her expectations. "I didn't expect to have such great bonds with my teammates," she said. She was also surprised at "how much the athletic department at UCLA worked to help me succeed academically and athletically," providing trainers, tutors, and more.

Even so, Sung-Jereczek said, the college commitment was formidable. "I didn't expect or anticipate the amount of time that I would have to devote to it," she said, of her time spent rowing at UCLA. Her commitment meant she couldn't get a part-time job or internship, she said, and severely limited her social life. "I didn't expect or anticipate that I would only be rowing or studying."

Plenty of athletes share that experience. In a survey of college athletes by the NCAA asking what students wished they could have changed about their college sports experience, the most common responses were about time. Another NCAA survey found that a typical NCAA athlete in-season spends 39 hours a week on academics—and 33 hours a week on sports.

Sung-Jereczek graduated from UCLA last spring, having rowed all four years on a scholarship that she said covered roughly three-fourths of her college costs. But she estimated that roughly 30 percent of the people she started with in her freshman year did not stay on the team that long—even in a sport where teammates are unusually reliant on each other.

She's proud that she rowed through college, and she managed to land a job at a sports management company after graduation. But Sung-Jereczek said she definitely thought about quitting along the way. "It's something my teammates and I always struggled with," she said, what with bus rides to the marina at 5:30 in the morning, 20 hours of practice every week, and frequent travel to races and competitions. "It's really hard for people to stick with it."

Her sister is rowing at UCLA now, Sung-Jereczek said, and wants to row all four years. "She's determined to, but you never know what happens."

Sidelined by injuries

Will Oliver, left, UCLA Bruins
Source: Don Liebig | UCLA Athletics
Will Oliver, left, UCLA Bruins

There are also athletes whose college sports careers are cut short by injuries.

That's what happened to Will Oliver, a student at UCLA. His path to a college athletic scholarship was unusually smooth. He only began playing football in high school, and his parents were thrilled when he was recruited by UCLA at the last minute and offered a full ride. When he arrived on campus, he was stunned at the resources available to the team.

"I didn't have any idea what it was to be a Division 1 athlete," he said. "Even on the field, they were fitting us for way better shoulder pads than I'd ever seen, any helmet you can imagine." The equipment room had aisles and aisles of face masks, gloves, and other gear on shelves taller than Oliver, who measures 6 feet 8 inches. (Research by the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics found that in 2010, the most recent year available, median spending on athletics per athlete at schools in UCLA's athletic conference was 7.2 times higher than median academic spending per student.)

Oliver was happy on the team, but his shoulders were not. He tore the cartilage in one shoulder joint in the fall of his freshman year after dislocating his shoulder multiple times. Recovering from the December surgery took months and when he rejoined the team for summer training, it was tough to catch up, he said.

In the new season, Oliver soon began having trouble with his other shoulder. The injuries on that side were worse, and he had surgery almost a year to the day after the first operation. The following spring, his coach sat him down and told him he needed to retire for his own health.

Surgery-requiring injuries like Oliver's may be uncommon. But injuries themselves are not. Between 1988 and 2004, the National Collegiate Athletic Association Injury Surveillance System recorded more than 200,000 injuries among college athletes, or about 12,500 per year, ranging from sprains and strains to broken bones and concussions.

If he could play football again, Oliver would do it in a heartbeat, he said. "Just being on the team, going through what I did go through and having all these different obstacles that I had to overcome—it really helped me grow up as a person and a man," he said. UCLA continued providing scholarship money since he left for medical reasons (that's common, though not a given at all schools). But adjusting to life after football was tough. He missed the team, and though he said he does not care for the spotlight, "as a student athlete you get certain privileges that you start taking for granted."

Adding it up

Olivia Courtney, UCLA gymnast
Source: Christy Linder | UCLA
Olivia Courtney, UCLA gymnast

Injuries aside, Oliver considers himself fortunate: his passion and aptitude for his sport paid off with a full ride to a top school.

Olivia Courtney, a nationally ranked gymnast at UCLA, is part of that elite group as well. But it took many years of hard work. She began pursuing the her goal of a spot on the national team when she was young, eventually moving to Florida to improve her chances. Some of her schooling took place online because her practice schedule was so intense. And when she made the national team, there was extensive travel – so extensive that it seemed more intense than college athletics.

"I really liked college a lot more than individual competing," Courtney said. "I liked the USA experience, but I just liked college more. I really liked the team aspect." Her UCLA gymnastics experience, Courtney said, was "stressful still, but so fun." Not only that, UCLA gave her a free ride for all four years.

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Courtney is a top-tier athlete, however, and it is rare indeed for any athletes to land enough athletic scholarship money to offset the cost of their youth sports involvement, particularly as those costs continue to climb.

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There are more opportunities every year for elite competition in youth sports, said Lisa Delpy Neirotti, an associate professor of sports management at George Washington University. "People are feeling the need to go because now they've got these college showcases and coaches show up, and if you want to get your kid seen, you'd better be there."

When parents add up how much money they've spent each year, it's almost equal to a scholarship in some cases, she said. Still, Neirotti has felt the pressure herself. She's done her share of writing checks and traveling for her own children's sports involvement.

Don Schumacher, executive director of the National Association of Sports Commissions, agrees that parents who expect youth sports involvement to generate a positive financial return in the form of scholarships are off the mark. "You could spend $5,000 to $10,000 a year for three or four years chasing all these tournaments all year long, where if you saved that money and paid the tuition, you'd be ahead," he said.

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How much is too much?

Some colleges and athletic conferences are also taking a second look at the demands on those high school athletes who do make the cut. The Atlantic Coast Conference women's soccer teams, for example, have modified the college teams' competition schedule to cut down on travel.

Amy Perko, executive director of the Knight Commission on Intercollegiate Athletics, said her organization, whose focus is making sure that college athletic programs operate in line with the schools' educational missions, is examining the demands of college sports travel and its impact on academics.

"Athletics in many ways is about helping individuals achieve their dreams, and it is about learning how you can push yourself to become better," said Perko, who was a star basketball player for Wake Forest. "It's the question of at what point does it become too much."

Elissa Cordrey, a Summit, N.J., mother of four lacrosse players who has been through the recruiting process with several of her own children, thinks often about that question. She has seen other young athletes have difficulty filtering offers from different schools, and said players and parents can often be blinded by a program's success or prestige and fail to think about whether that college is right for them.

Luckily for Cordrey, her children have so far had positive experiences at their Division 1 and Division 3 schools. But she is under no illusions about what high-level athletics involve.

"My kids love it and we are thrilled they are making the commitment," she said. But if the child is playing for the sake of a scholarship, and not for love of the game, be careful, she warned. "Keep your eyes wide open. It's not high school athletics. In some ways, it's really exciting. But if your child's not passionate, you are going to have a lot of teary phone calls."

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