Can you expect athletic or academic scholarships to be a part of your college funding plan?


Determining how to pay for a college education can be one of the most financially challenging decisions a parent or child has to make.  With over $1.3 trillion dollars in outstanding student loan debt in the United States, parents are often desperate to find ways to sidestep college debt.  (BTW – according to the International Monetary Fund, this is around the same amount as Russia’s nominal GDP).  From academic scholarships and athletic scholarships to institutional aid and grants, there are many stones to uncover as you explore funding alternatives.  While there are many avenues to consider, parents often have unrealistic expectations regarding both the probability and size of scholarships, often “banking” on their child receiving a “full ride” to the school of their choice.  The question becomes – should scholarships be your primary college funding plan?

Athletic scholarships

According to the NCAA, Division I and II schools provide nearly $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships annually to over 150,000 student-athletes.  If that sounds like a lot – it actually isn’t.  Of all high school athletes, roughly 2 percent are awarded some form of athletic scholarship.  In fact, according to , average athletic scholarships for men and women for Division I schools were $14,270 and $15,162 respectively.  Average Division II scholarships drop to $5,548 for men and $6,814 for women – hardly the “full ride” many parents hope for. 

Academic scholarships

In addition to athletic scholarships, many parents and students hope to earn an academic scholarship.  While merit based scholarships also vary from school to school, there is substantially more funds received for academics but you must do your research.  According to William Staib, CEO of, a site dedicated to empowering parents and students researching how much they can expect to pay for college, “While most schools are going to offer some form of merit aid to their students, the importance of doing your homework cannot be overstressed.”  College Raptor allows you to easily use a net price calculator (NPC) to get an estimate on how much you can expect to pay for a particular school and how much you may receive in merit awards based upon student grades.  William adds, “The school’s “sticker price” is irrelevant as on average, students and families end up paying about 50 percent of the sticker price.” Despite the fact that academic scholarships from universities can reduce the college funding burden, “full ride” merit scholarships are also rare, highlighting once again the importance of having realistic expectations.

Needs based aid

In addition to academics and athletics, needs based aid and grants are often relied upon by parents and students to cover a portion of college costs.  The problem is that many parents are shocked to learn that they earn too much to receive meaningful financial aid.  While it is possible to qualify for aid including the Pell Grant, you will have to complete the FAFSA, providing your financial information so the government can calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC).  While family income is a big factor in determining what you can expect, it is not the only one.  Bottom line – many families incorrectly assume that they can rely on needs based aid for the majority of their college expenses when many end up with only subsidized or unsubsidized loans.

Outside Scholarships

As one of the more labor intensive approaches to reducing costs, outside scholarships can also help to fill in funding gaps.  According to Kevin Ladd, COO of , “It really comes down to how much research and work someone is willing to put into it.  Generally, we see applicants win 10-15 percent of scholarships applied for if you select scholarships that work toward your strengths with average size being approximately $2,000 to $3,000.”  Much like athletic and academic scholarships, very few applicants receive a full ride but they do exist from large foundations and even small scholarships can be beneficial. 

The moral of the story

The numbers speak for themselves – very few students receive athletic or academic scholarships and those that do, generally will not receive enough to cover the majority of college expenses.  It is critical for parents and students to take a conservative approach and avoid relying on a scholarship as your primary education funding plan.  Instead, these scholarships should be viewed as a way to augment an individualized savings strategy.  Developing a college savings plan to determine how much to save (net of tuition inflation) while incorporating your personal financial goals may help.  Starting early (when children are young) and saving often within tax-advantaged 529 plans and other savings vehicles may be a more effective approach to pursuing education funding goals.  

Consider doing your homework and visiting the sites noted above to educate yourself on your expected family contribution and net price calculators for the schools you are interested in.   Also remember to look past a school’s sticker price as it is possible for private schools with large sticker prices to end up costing less than public schools.  Since everyone’s situation is unique, consider speaking to your financial adviser to determine the most appropriate game-plan for your college funding goals.