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Are Athletic Scholarships An Illusion of Opportunity? What Parents Need to Know – But May Not What To Hear

Following is a great article on college recruiting. I am grateful to re-post this piece with the approval of Dr. Dave Epperson and Dr. Paul Arrington. Two great minds. I thank them for allowing me to pass their experience and knowledge on to you…to help guide you through this sometimes treacherous process.

By: David Canning Epperson, Ph.D. and Paul Arrington, M.D.
Parents for Good Sports

This article identifies the costs of accepting a college scholarship. While we are extremely concerned about the impact of college scholarships on the climate of youth sports and on athletes who are competing for them our criticism should not be taken as a blanket condemnation of either serious youth sports training or of college athletics. For many years both of us administered junior traveling teams upon which our daughters competed. All three of our daughters advanced to the college level where they experienced many uplifting moments as members of their team communities. In addition, both of us participated in intercollegiate athletics and think it can provide wonderful opportunities when it is undertaken with an enlightened mindset. However, we were in college in two quite different eras, the early 50’s and the mid 60’s. Today the demands that college athletics put upon athletes are much greater and NCAA Division I departments of athletics have become major players in the entertainment sports industry which is now driven by the bottom line, not by educational considerations. It is for this reason that we are raising cautionary notes about the pursuit of college scholarships.

“My sixth grade child is playing for a club that gets ‘full ride scholarships’ for those athletes who earn a position on their traveling teams throughout junior high and high school. Isn’t that great?”

How many times have we heard reports like this from parents who have been sold on investing their hard-earned money enrolling their children in clubs that field traveling teams? It is easy to understand a parent’s eagerness to have their children earn scholarships with college costs escalating to $50,000 to $75,000 or more at public institutions and $180,000 at private schools. Who wouldn’t be excited by the prospects of their child receiving a scholarship? Another benefit of developing athletic prowess is that it can, in some instances, increase the prospects of being admitted to a prestigious non-scholarship university where a student-athlete may not otherwise qualify. Being a successful athlete is taken into consideration in the admission process, even at highly competitive Ivy League schools.

volleyball-recruitBefore parents begin investing large sums of money and urging their children to invest the time and energy in developing their athletic skills to a level that will make them eligible for a scholarship, they would do well to ask themselves the following questions:

• What are the benefits and the drawbacks of participation in college athletics?
• Despite rising college costs, is aggressively pursuing an “athletic scholarship” really a great financial bargain?
• On a more basic level, should youth sports be viewed as a means to an end (i.e. to earn a college scholarship), or should it be approached as an “end” in itself?

Benefits and Drawbacks

To many parents, the prospects of their children continuing their sports careers in college seems very attractive, indeed. Beyond the benefits of bringing in scholarship monies it is rewarding to know that college coaches recognize their children’s special gifts. To have a child be one of the “chosen few” gives parents bragging rights with family, friends, and fellow workers. Every parent likes to be in possession of evidence that their children are appreciated for their special talents.

Clearly, there are definite benefits to being involved in college sports. Parents have the responsibility to help their children appreciate the benefits of earning a scholarship. They also have the responsibility to help their children engage in a careful, detailed assessment of the costs as well the benefits of continuing their sports careers beyond high school. Many high school and club athletes need to take the time to consider the option of participating in intramural, club, or pick-up sports in college as a way to continue to enjoy sports as opposed to becoming a member of a varsity team.

Below are listed several reasons a child may want to end serious sports training after high school:

• Sports training can detract from the pursuit of their vocational dreams.
• It can interfere with their social life.
• They can take a psychological beating from a care-less coach who is driven by the need to win.
• They can endure injuries that will have life-long consequences.
• They can spend their entire college career on the bench.
• They can become “burned out” and lose their zest for their sport.
• They can be branded a “jock” and treated unfairly by their classmates.
• They can become sequestered in a very narrow “jock culture” that limits their breadth of intellectual, emotional and social growth.
• They can become so exhausted by schoolwork and sports training schedules that they have very little energy left for life beyond the gym, the weight room and the library.
• The competitive environment within their team can limit their ability to get close to teammates, since loss of a scholarship or being cut from the team always looms large for all of them.
• The coach can unceremoniously drop them from the program.
• Team travel can become an ordeal rather than an opportunity to be exposed to new horizons.

There are, of course, strategies for overcoming the limitations of each of these drawbacks. However, the investment in overcoming them needs to be understood as a potential distraction from achieving other important personal and professional dreams. If an athlete fails to acknowledge the reality of the costs of committing to a college varsity regimen, they could pay a heavy price. Parents can help their children weigh the costs and benefits of a college sports career.

How a Parent Can Help Their Children Make Good Decisions About Pursuing a Sports Career Beyond High School

Below are listed some actions parents can take to help their children make their choice about whether to pursue a college scholarship.

• Help them establish their priorities about how they want to live their lives in college and beyond.
• Help them carefully research their options.
• Help them understand that there are numerous ways their education can be funded (academic scholarships, grants, loans, and part-time jobs, most of which are less demanding than athletic training schedules.)
• Help them understand the importance to the reputation of their school or club coaches of having them earn scholarships. Weight the coach’s advice accordingly.
• Help them dig below the college’s PR. Assess the quality of the academic programs. Invite them to use outside sources to make their assessments.
• Help them get a good match between their athletic and academic abilities and the demands that will be placed upon them at the college they are considering. When demand exceeds capacity, disaster nearly always strikes.
• Urge them to seek objective evaluations of their athletic and academic talent.
• Help them resist flattery by recruiters.
• Insist that they get well acquainted with current team members.
• Urge them to interview team dropouts to find out why they left the program.
• Discourage them from choosing the school because they “love” the coach. Coaches put on their best face during the recruiting process. Furthermore, there is a good chance they may take a job elsewhere before the athlete graduates.
• Discourage them from over-estimating their resiliency to bounce back from setbacks. The consequences of losing in college are far greater for the college coach than they are for the school and club coach. Coaches can and do lose their jobs when their teams do not win.
• Help them be realistic about the life lessons they can learn on the playing field. Life lessons learned through sports participation are often overstated.
• Coach them on how to fight to preserve their individuality and autonomy. Avoid programs that regulate their every move.
• Insist that they make their own decisions. Urge them to consult others, but ultimately the decision is theirs and theirs alone.
• Help them resist being pressured to decide. Advise them to take their time.
• Insist that they study each school’s graduation rate. Colleges are required by the NCAA to publish these statistics.
• Discourage them from placing too much emphasis upon climate and geography. Their future is more important than their immediate comfort.
• Invite them to proceed upon the assumption they will incur a career-ending injuring on the first day of practice. Have them ask, “Is this the place I want to spend the next four years of my life?”

Most importantly, an athlete’s involvement in sport needs to be put in perspective. Their ultimate life goals need to guide their choices about how they use their college years. Granted the vast majority of high school graduates do not have a clear vision of what that want to do with the rest of their lives, but they typically have developed some sense of where they want to be after they finish serious sports training.

Most parents have grown accustom to being a part of their children’s life in sports. Parents need to guard against the natural tendency to want to hang on to that part of their life at the expense of their children’s preparation for the future. While many parents would welcome the freedom of not having to chauffer their children around to practices and competitions, the culture that has grown up around their children’s sports has become a major part of their family life. It is often difficult for parents to envision giving up the satisfaction that goes with being a part of their children’s life in sport. The time comes, however, when it is in the best interest of their children to step back and allow them to move into the next chapter of their lives, a chapter that may not include serious sports training and may call for parents to play a reduced role in the lives of their children.

When student-athletes are making choices about whether to continue their sports careers in college, there are also choices parents need to make. It is important for parents to choose a path that signals their confidence in their children to gather the information they need to make good choices. By following the advice set forward above parents will have taken the first steps along the path to becoming the kind of parent they want to become – one who has equipped their children with the tools they need to make informed decision that will allow them to stay on track toward shaping and fulfilling their own dreams. For many children of college age, sport needs to become one of many sources of development and personal renewal, rather than their major preoccupation. Parents can help their children make good decisions by being there for them as they struggle with these difficult life-shaping choices. While they need to step back and allow their children to assess the costs and benefits of their various options, parents need to be there for them as they progress along the path toward decision.

Financial considerations

Some professional athletes have become obscenely wealthy. However, as the NCAA commercial on television says, “After our college athletic career, almost all of us will be going pro ¬– in something else.” College athletes have a better chance of becoming neurosurgeons than they do of becoming professional athletes. Therefore, participating in collegiate athletics solely in the hope of becoming a professional athlete is taking a very large risk, indeed. For college football players, 0.5 percent (5 per 1000 participants) have the opportunity to play professionally and many of these for only one or two years. For other sports, the odds are even slimmer. Thus, participating in college athletics with the hope of becoming a wealthy professional is at best a very risky venture.

With rising college costs, there are certainly financial reasons for considering college sports and an “athletic scholarship.” To clarify the college athletic scholarship situation a brief discussion of the different divisions of varsity intercollegiate sports may be helpful. There are many different levels of varsity sport options available at the collegiate level:

• NCAA Division I These are for the most part the larger public and private schools; they offer “athletic scholarships.” The only exception to this is for the eight schools in the Ivy League that offer scholarships based only upon economic need. Coaches at these schools are not typically faculty members.
• NCAA Division II These are usually the medium sized schools which also offer athletic scholarships. However, the number of available scholarships is by regulation fewer than those of Division I schools. Coaches are sometimes faculty members at these schools.
• NCAA Division III Although these tend to be the smaller private liberal arts schools, there are several medium sized public universities participating at this level. Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships. Their coaches are usually faculty members with other teaching duties and are often granted tenure.
• NAIA These are small colleges usually with limited enrollment. They offer athletic scholarships and are bound by fewer limiting rules concerning recruitment and the treatment of athletes.
• Junior College These are 2 year schools which do not grant bachelor’s degrees. Many offer athletic scholarships.

Let’s now evaluate the financial benefits of participating in a junior club program with the hope of earning a scholarship. We will complete a cost-benefit analysis of participating in sports at the various college levels. To accomplish this end, we will examine college costs, the number of hours a week athletes spend in practice and competing in tournaments, and the costs of travel and club dues.

A scholarship can be a financial windfall for parents. Average yearly cost of tuition, books, and room and board are:
• Public schools – in-state fees $9000 – $12000 per year
• Public schools – out of state fees $18000 – $24000 per year
• Private schools $30000 – $45000 per year

Athletes may be in a program that practices two or three hours a day, four or five days a week, six to nine months a year or more. There may also be significant travel time to practice each day. Additionally, one can expect frequent competitions. It is not unlikely that an athlete will spend well over 750 to 1000 hours a year in club sports activities.

Most of the highly competitive clubs in the current era recruit paid coaches and either rent or own their own practice facilities. Fees in these clubs can reach as high as $10,000 per year with travel to several regional and national level competitions.

Based on this information, club fees alone over the six-year period of an athlete’s participation could be more than enough to fund his or her entire fours years at a public institution as an in-state student.

In the event the high school athlete chooses to go to an out of state school, lets look at some other options. If the athlete were in a less competitive club program that practiced two or three days a week, she would be able to work part-time (a few hours a week) even at minimum wage, and save the money for college. The athlete would not be as tired as he or she would be after practice and could devote more time to academic work and other aspects of high school life.

Some parents could assert that they want their child to learn valuable life skills from their sports program. The evidence that athletes learn transferable life skills through their participation in sports is skimpy indeed. Most coaches have not been trained to make use of their time with athletes to teach them life skills. Furthermore, those of us from a different era could make a good case that life in the workplace has a distinct tendency to promote valuable life skills as well. (The authors both had experiences as teenagers working on a farm)

Lets consider the financial impact if an athlete were to work 8 hours a week during the school year and 20 hours a week for ten weeks during the summer while in junior high and the first year of high school and during the last three years of high school for 10 hours a week when school was in session and 40 hours a week during the summer at a minimum wage of $7.50 per hour and that the money was deposited in an account earning 5% interest. Over the six-year period the student would have saved $35,954.67

If parents were to combine this with $36,000 or more they saved by having their child participate in a less “competitive” program they would have enough money for four years of out of state fees at almost any public college in the country.

From another perspective, if the athlete were participating in a less demanding program she could use a small portion of the saved time to work at improving her grades and her SAT scores, thereby qualifying for one of the very competitive Ivy league or Division III schools on the basis of her academic capabilities rather than on the hope of gaining admission on the basis of her athletic accomplishments.

College recruiters seldom emphasize the fact that athletic scholarships are for one year only, not four, and that they are renewable at the sole discretion of the coach. One of the author’s former players was a starting defensive specialist at a NCAA Division I school as a freshman. She was told at the end of the year by the coach that her scholarship would not be renewed because he needed it to recruit a middle attacker. Unfortunately this type of situation is not all that uncommon. Coaches are under such extreme pressure to field winning teams that they will use the players to help them succeed and advance professionally and financially.

If it should happen that an athlete has gone to an out of state school and loses her scholarship or even worse sustains a career ending injury, parents are now faced with a much greater expense than if their child had attended a school in their home state without a scholarship. The other option for athletes who lose their scholarships is for them to transfer to a less expensive school, which many are loath to do after they have sunk their roots into the school of their choice.

Parents whose children enroll in a highly competitive junior club program with the hope of securing a college scholarship need to recognize that there are significant risks involved in this “investment.”

• After several years of participating at a highly competitive junior level, burnout is an all too frequent occurrence. Under these circumstances an athlete may very well decide that he or she does not to want to compete at the college level.
• Injuries may prevent an athlete from participation.
• Athletes may not receive a scholarship offer from colleges that meet their educational needs.
• An athlete’s college curriculum may not permit participation in sports because of a conflict in class times.
• Even in college, an athlete can “burn out” but feel that they can’t quit because they are on scholarship and that quitting would mean their parents would have to pay their college expenses.

Parents need to carefully evaluate whether encouraging their children to work toward earning an athletic scholarship is really worth it. If parents have invested large sums of money in junior sports training with a college scholarship in mind and their children find themselves in a less than desirable situation on the team, they may feel trapped. They may not want to remain on the team but yet feel as though they can’t quit. This is certainly not in their best interest, and no parent wants their children to be in this position. Also if an athlete cannot or chooses not to play after having participated in a high priced club program, the parents are now faced with having spent a lot of money already at the expense of not having saved for their college education.

There are many ways to pay for a college education, and parents need to keep in mind the old saw, “there are no free lunches.” On the surface, an “athletic scholarship” may appear to be a major financial windfall. However, parents must carefully evaluate all options before investing heavily in a club with the hope of their child being awarded one a scholarship.

Should Sports Be An End In Itself Or Just A Means To Some Other End?

Only during the last twenty-five to thirty years have youth sports been viewed as a means to an end, i.e., a college athletic scholarship. Prior to that time it was primarily seen as an end in itself.

We need to seriously question whether children should participate in sports for the financial pay off, the reflected glory parents enjoy, or the advantage sports credentials give them when applying for admission to a highly respected university.

As mentioned earlier, there are many club sports programs that give the impression to parents and athletes that if an athlete is selected for one of their elite traveling team they will be “guaranteed” a scholarship. Who are the true beneficiaries when a child enrolls in a program with the promise of a college scholarship? Certainly the coaches who are invested in rising through the ranks of their profession are profiting. Since junior coaching has been professionalized there are some coaches who earn salaries that rival many college coaches. Those are the coaches whose programs recruit and train college-bound athletes. Also parents benefit. They are the privileged few who will not have to foot the bill for a college education. How about the athletes? Are their lives truly enriched by the college sports experience? By investing in preparing themselves for college sports have they really expanded their opportunities to realize their personal goals?

If young athletes are asked why they participate in sports, the top four reasons they give are:

1. To have fun
2. To be with friends who have similar interests
3. To make new friends
4. To learn new skills

These are the things that are intrinsic to sport. Winning is the 12th most important reason children give for wanting to be involved in sports, and getting a scholarship is not even on the radar screen until parents and coaches start pushing it as something of importance.

Many parents and coaches have lost touch with how athletes experience “fun.” Fun can best be understood as an activity in which one becomes deeply involved in what they are doing and closely connected to those with whom they are doing it in ways that uplifted and renew their spirits. Fun by this definition is a goal to which all athletes, coaches and parents can aspire.

Dancers dance, singers sing, and athletes play. Perhaps the major benefit of sports participation is that it provides opportunities for self-expression. The desire to express oneself is one of the strongest human motives. Most athletes, coaches and parents want to discover ways they can leave their unique mark on the world. That outcome can only occur when the frustrations of every day life are forgotten, even for a brief period of time. If athletes are worried about performing well so that they can qualify for a scholarship, or to satisfy the needs of coaches or parents they will be less able to enjoy the experience of freely expressing themselves

In addition to the opportunity for self-expression there are many other benefits that from participating in sports, such as to develop skills and personal qualities that can allow them to be successful in later life. While it is true that there is a positive correlation between success in sports and success in later life, systematic research has failed to find that participation in sports is a sufficient condition to produce success in later life. More than likely, athletes who succeed in later life have qualities when they enter sports that predispose them for success in sports and in life after leaving sports. The majority of children of caring and supportive parents who hold high expectations for their children will be likely to become successful adults whether or not they participate in sports. For most children sport is something that simply enriches their daily lives. It affords them a mode of self-expression, adds excitement to their lives, and provides valued companionship.

Having fun is imperative if children are to remain invested in sports. The main reason young athletes drop out of sports is because they are no longer having fun. If they aren’t having fun, there is absolutely no chance for them to learn life skills or become skillful enough to compete at the college level.

Based on the above observations, it would seem very unwise to depend upon youth sports to ensure success in adult life. And in spite of the attraction of saving money by earning an “athletic scholarship,” in most cases, the financial benefits do not justify the investment.

Participation in sports should first of all be undertaken for its inherent value and not as a means to some other end. If life skills are learned during a child’s career in youth sports, that is indeed a bonus. It means that athletes have had an exceptionally well-prepared coach who has taken the time to develop the skills needed to teach their athletes life lessons. Or it means that their parents have developed exceptional mentoring skills that have allowed them to use sports to teach their children life lessons. While such skills are a valuable asset, very few parents have taken the time to learn how to use sports to promote their children’s maturity. Most parents try to teach life lesson to their children, but all too often fracture their relationships with their children in the process. To use sports to teach life lessons requires good judgment. Parents need to know how, when and where to teach children life lessons without turning them off by coming across as preaching. Messages, such as, “You just have to shake it off and suck it up” after their children have experienced a painful setback most often fall on deaf ears. Athletes who have just experienced a setback are not really ready to receive advice, especially from one of their parents. Comfort yes, advice no.

If their children have not learned life lessons through sports, or if they have failed to earn a scholarship the investment parents have made in their children’s sports careers can still have a bountiful payoff. They can view their outlay as a high yield investment if it has allowed their children to achieve their personal goals, that is, to have fun, to be with friends who have similar interests, to make new friends, and to learn new skills whose mastery and execution provide them with a sense of accomplishment. Having achieved these ends justifies the investment. And most importantly, let’s remember the sense of satisfaction parents get from witnessing their children grow and from sharing those very special moments with their children before, during and after their competitions. Is sport worth the investment? You bet it is, with or without a college scholarship or any other tangible outcome.


  1. Coach Chuck,

    Wow, great advice. Love the article, we will keep a copy close by.



  2. Coach Chuck,

    Wow, great advice. Love the article, we will keep a copy close by.



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