Chasing Athletic Scholarship Dreams Can Be a Costly Mistake

Camps. Equipment. Travel to tournaments. Recruiting fees. It’s expensive to have a high school student-athlete in your home. But who doesn’t dream of a full-ride scholarship to your child’s dream school? Here’s an athletic scholarship reality check to help you make the right spending choices for your family.

A high school football player runs the stairs in a football stadium.
(Image credit: Getty Images)

At 6’2” and 230 pounds, Dylan is a football coach’s dream. An offensive lineman, Dylan has fantastic footwork and excellent field awareness. Currently, a sophomore in high school, Dylan dreams of playing Division 1 football on a full ride.

Emma is an exceptionally fast point guard and natural team leader. She holds her high school’s record for most points scored during a season. Emma loves basketball and hopes that a sports scholarship will pay for the private college that is financially out of reach of her family.

Put 100 Dylans and Emmas in a room. Guess how many get a full-ride athletic scholarship?

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One.

Yet parents spend thousands of dollars (opens in new tab) to help their child secure that one-in-a-hundred full ride. Many parents — and students — feel incredible pressure via social media to join a travel team, attend a high-priced skills camp, pay for a recruiter, and spend countless nights in generic motel rooms.

Just browse through any high school’s Twitter and Instagram posts. Seems like everyone has been invited to attend a camp or received a letter from a college or university expressing interest. (Understand that schools send out thousands of these letters. You are not being actively recruited until a coach gives you a formal offer.)

D1 and D2 schools give out more than $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships annually. That’s a huge dollar amount, but the reality is that fewer than 2% of high school student-athletes (opens in new tab) are offered athletic scholarships.

Sure, we all know of high school students who receive a scholarship to play their sport at the collegiate level. As students sign their National Letter of Intent, our social media feeds explode with posts by excited students and parents. But no one discloses the actual scholarship dollar amount. Suffice it to say, it’s usually just a fraction of the cost of a private school.

I’m not telling parents not to finance the next Tom Brady or the next Barry Bonds or help their child attend their dream school on an athletic scholarship. Sports are important and teach kids valuable life lessons. But, as a financial planner, I encourage my clients to consider whether some of the money spent on athletics might better be saved in a 529 college savings plan or diverted to academic enrichment instead.

Yes, College is Expensive (Even with a Scholarship)

College costs keep rising. The annual cost (opens in new tab) for a private four-year public school, including tuition and room and board, is $22,690 and for a private college or university, it’s $51,690. It’s little wonder that students leave school with an average of $28,950 in loans, amounting to $1.75 trillion (opens in new tab) in total student loan debt.

Only six D1 sports provide full-ride scholarships that cover tuition and fees, room, board and course-related books. These “headcount” sports are football, men’s and women’s basketball, volleyball, gymnastics and tennis. Student-athletes in every other sport compete for “equivalency” or partial scholarships that coaches divide among their roster.

The average athletic scholarship for all sports (opens in new tab) in Division I is approximately $14,270 a year for men and $15,162 for women. In Division II sports, the numbers drop to $5,548 for men and $6,814 for women.

Using NCAA averages, a typical men’s ice hockey scholarship at Syracuse University is $14,270. Tuition, room and board is around $76,000. While the athletic scholarship reduces the cost to attend, students and parents are still left paying more than $60,000 per year.

Many people assume schools grant athletic scholarships for four years, but these are typically one-year contracts between the school and the athlete that can be pulled for a variety of reasons, including injury, poor academic performance, or getting into trouble.

Get Ready for a Hard Sell from Recruiting Services

Of the nearly 8 million students currently participating in high school athletics in the U.S., only 495,000 (opens in new tab) of them will compete at NCAA schools. And of that elite group, only a fraction will go on to become a professional or Olympic athlete.

But those odds don’t deter recruiting companies from promising student-athletes that they can help them snag a lucrative full-ride scholarship. Here’s just a sample of advertising and marketing messaging from a few firms:

  • “If you could invest a few hundred to a few thousand dollars and get back $50,000 to $150,000 for a college education, would you?”
  • “100% of our student-athletes get options to college.”
  • “Our student-athletes average over $100,000.00 in college funding.”
  • “YES, it can be expensive, but you have to balance the cost against your child’s future, not just their athletic future but their career prospects after college.”

Recruiting services charge student-athletes a fee to be included in a database and generate exposure to coaches free of charge. Some offer consulting services throughout the college admission and decision process.

Recruiters use timeshare-like sales pitches that pull at your heartstrings. You want your child to succeed, and you’ve already invested hundreds of hours and thousands of dollars in your child’s athletic career, from Little League Baseball uniforms to summer training camps to equipment to district fees to spirit packs … and the list goes on.

Many recruiting firms start their outreach when students are in middle school and years away from deciding if they’d want to play sports in college or even go to college. For example, Kaylee is a pretty good volleyball player. She enjoys the team comradery and challenge of pushing herself. As an eighth-grader, Kaylee was surprised when she received a message on social media from a firm promising to get her profile in front of college coaches with the lure of an athletic scholarship in her future.

Kaylee was excited. Was she a better athlete than she thought she was? She had always wanted to attend a private university about three hours from home, but her parents made it clear that they were only saving enough money to pay for in-state tuition.

Kaylee saw an opportunity to attend the school of her dreams on an athletic scholarship. She convinced her parents to spend $1,000 to be included in a database to generate exposure to coaches. Kaylee also attended clinics and camps to hone her skills.

An ACL tear in her junior year meant an end to her time on the volleyball court – dashing her dreams of a scholarship and making the money spent on recruiting services worthless.

Other students find that when they start applying to college, they are no longer passionate about the sport they had once loved as a freshman. They want to experience college in the stands rather than on the field.

Beware of Recruiting Scams

Recruiting services have come under scrutiny:

  • Recruiting services have been caught charging athletes money to complete their NCAA eligibility paperwork. The paperwork is free.
  • D-1 Bound (opens in new tab) was charged with bilking 18 families out of $33,000. One parent reported paying $7,500 to D-1 Bound and receiving no recruiting help.
  • There have also been instances of “coaches” reaching out to athletes using fake Twitter accounts. In one, someone using the Twitter handle @RecruitingEZ (opens in new tab) reached out to high school players claiming to be Jeff Hecklinski, the football recruiter for the University of Kansas and promised to send athletes’ game film to coaches for a fee.
  • Not to mention the widely circulated report that 33 parents, including actress Lori Loughlin (opens in new tab), bribed coaches to admit students they falsely identified as top athletes in under-the-radar sports like tennis, crew and water polo. The students had little to no experience in these sports and no intention of competing at the college level.

Of course, there are bona fide recruiting agencies, so you’ll have to do your due diligence to separate the legitimate ones from the scams. Ask for references and check the BBB’s Scam Tracker. You can find additional reviews in the BBB’s section in Athletic Organizations/Recruitment Services (opens in new tab).

You Can Do It Yourself (No Recruiter Needed)

Many recruiting services lead you to believe that they have exclusive access to coaches. That’s nonsense: College coaches want to hear from potential student-athletes, and it’s easy to get coaches’ email and phone numbers. Making a video to send to coaches is not difficult or expensive.

In fact, coaches often treat outreach from recruiting agencies as spam or junk mail. Recruiting services brag about the number of coaches that viewed an email; however, views don’t mean a coach actually read the email.

The NCAA also provides scouting services free of charge to student-athletes. Colleges and universities pay to access the scouting database; there’s no charge for the student-athlete. QwikU and XOS are two well-known scouting services.

Another issue with these services is that very few offer pricing information upfront. Some lure you in with a free service that is typically just adding your student-athlete to their database. They then work hard to upsell premium packages. They lead you down a path that is difficult to turn away from once they reveal the actual price.

Don’t Neglect Academics for Sport

To be eligible to compete in D1 sports (opens in new tab), the NCAA requires that all athletes meet academic requirements that include earning at least a 2.3 GPA and an SAT or ACT score matching the student’s core-course GPA on the D1 sliding scale, which balances test scores and core-course GPAs. A low test score means you need a higher core-course GPA to be eligible and vice versa. D2 schools require a 2.2 GPA.

The NCAA estimates (opens in new tab) that D1 student-athletes spend 35.5 hours per week on academics and 33 hours on athletics. And that’s not just during competition season: 67% of student-athletes say they spend as much or more time on athletics during the offseason. With so much time spent on the field or the court or the gym, there’s little time for academic enrichment opportunities, such as internships or study abroad programs, not to mention a social life and sleep.

Of course, you could argue that sport is an internship on the path to a professional career. But again, the odds aren’t good. For instance, out of 4,181 draft-eligible NCAA men’s basketball players, 52 were drafted into the NBA (opens in new tab). Out of 3,669 draft-eligible NCAA women’s basketball players, 31 were drafted into the WNBA. Out of 16,380 draft-eligible NCAA football players, 254 were drafted into the NFL.

That’s the number of players who were drafted. Far fewer actually have a lucrative professional career.

Instead, consider having your high school student-athlete spend time and money working with a tutor, since many student-athletes also benefit from NCAA financial aid programs such as the NCAA Division 1 Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund.

Evaluating Athletic Scholarship Offers

If your son or daughter receives an offer for an athletic scholarship, keep the following in mind as you evaluate which college or university to choose:

  • Look at your expected family contribution and out-of-pocket costs when comparing costs. A larger scholarship at an expensive private school may not be as cost-effective as a smaller scholarship at a less expensive public school.
  • Is the school a fit? Would the student want to attend this school if they couldn’t be on the team? Does it have a strong program in your athlete’s field of study? What is the overall culture at the school? Is the geographic location one the athlete is happy with? If your athlete doesn’t love the school — even with a large scholarship — it could cost more in the end if they decide to transfer to a school that is a better fit.
  • Don’t overlook academic scholarships to supplement a potential athletic scholarship. In many ways, academic scholarships are more secure since you can’t lose your scholarship due to injury or poor performance, as long as you maintain your grades. And since D3 and Ivy League schools do not offer athletic scholarships, they may be more willing to offer merit or needs-based scholarships to a student-athlete with good grades. These scholarships can be larger than the offers from D1 and D2 schools.

For many student-athletes, a scholarship allows them to attend a school that would be otherwise financially out of reach. By playing sports in college, young adults can make lifelong friends, develop leadership skills and become more self-confident. And those benefits are indeed priceless.

Every family must evaluate how much to spend on athletics. Here’s a warning: Make these monetary decisions with eyes wide open and not because of social media pressure or unrealistic dreams of an athletic scholarship.

Carson Partners offers investment advisory service through CWM, LLC, an SEC Registered Investment Advisor. Carson Partners, a division of CWM, LLC, is a nationwide partnership of advisors. Carson Coaching and CWM, LLC are separate but affiliated companies and wholly owned subsidiaries of Carson Holdings, LLC. Carson Coaching does not provide advisory services.

This article was written by and presents the views of our contributing adviser, not the Kiplinger editorial staff. You can check adviser records with the SEC or with FINRA.

Erin Wood, CFP®, CRPC®, FBSⓇ
Senior Vice President, Financial Planning, Carson Group

Erin Wood is the Senior Vice President of Financial Planning at Carson Group (opens in new tab), where she develops strategies to help families achieve their financial goals. She holds Certified Financial Planner, Chartered Retirement Planning Counselor and Certified Financial Behavior Specialist designations.