College Recruiting Series #3 - What Amount of Scholarship Should I Expect?

My grandfather's answer to the question posed in the title of this article would be to expect none and be delighted in what you end up with. There's a good deal of wisdom wrapped up in that answer, but it probably doesn't reflect a realistic assessment of why you took a second glance at this article.

The first thing to be clear about, however, isn't going to sound very reassuring. College track and field is not big-time college football. Yet, it seems that most of the initial expectations about college scholarship levels get shaped by what we've learned from big-time college football.

NCAA Division I - FBS football programs are allowed 85 full scholarships. Every school in the division uses the full allotment of all 85 of those scholarships. Typically, they do not divide those scholarships into partial scholarships. They keep 85 players on full scholarship at their institution at any given time, unless the school is on probation for some kind of violation and part of the penalty for that violation is a reduced number of scholarships.

It's nothing like that in college track and field. So forget everything you thought you learned from hearing about football scholarships.

Let's begin with scholarship numbers. For Division I programs, women's track and field (which includes cross country) has a maximum of 18 scholarships to make available. Men's track and field has a maximum of 12.6 scholarships to make available. For Division II programs, both men's and women's programs have a maximum of 12.6 scholarships to make available. For NAIA schools, it's a maximum of 12 scholarships for both men and women. NCAA Division III programs are allowed no athletic scholarships. So, if your college plans are aiming their direction, this article won't be of much further use to you.

But, unlike football, scholarship-granting schools often do not give out the full allotment of scholarships they are allowed. Many schools are not "fully funded," meaning that the institution has decided to support the program with less than the full allotment of scholarships permitted to them by the governing body. There are many schools that support track and field at the level of one, two, or three scholarships for the entire men's or women's track and field program!

Obviously, that affects the overall availability of scholarships for track and field, as well as how the available track and field scholarships are parceled out.

A full-ride scholarship for track and field is a rare thing, and something reserved for the very best of athletes. If you don't project as a potential major conference champion, or better, you can probably kiss any hopes of a full-ride track and field scholarship good-bye. Even if you do project as a conference champion, you may not get the full ride, and especially so if you happen to be male (more on that later).

With only 18, 12.6, or 12 scholarships to offer and a track program to build and/or maintain, a college track coach is going to be careful to divide those scholarships up for maximum impact. Scholarships in the amount of 10 or 20% of the total of college expenses for one year are frequent in this business, and even for very good athletes. To understand why coaches do this, simply take 18 scholarships and divide by 0.2 (20%). That means a fully-funded DI women's coach could give 90 different 20% scholarships to fill out the track team. Actually, that's probably more women than he/she wants on his/her track team, but you get the idea of how partial scholarships make it possible to bring on enough scholarship athletes to have a well-rounded team.

Anyhow, all of that is the bad news (if you are inclined to think of any scholarship offer as bad news).

The good news, at least at many schools, is that track and field coaches have become very adept at finding ways to help recruits tap into need-based and academic-based scholarship aid to reduce the financial burden of attending their school. Only the athletically-based portion of the scholarship aid given to a student is counted against the maximum number of scholarships allowed (though there are some pretty strict rules on how the athletically-based portion of the scholarship is determined). This is not, however, the story at all schools. It's a simple fact of life that the amount and type of academic scholarship aid available varies widely from school to school and that variation either ties or frees the hands of the coach to help put together a more attractive total package for a recruit. For more detail on this from the perspective of the college recruiting coordinator, I would refer you to Jay Johnson's discussion of this topic in the previous college recruiting series.

Many schools, to include Stanford and the Ivy League schools, offer no academic scholarship aid whatsoever (both Stanford and the Ivy League schools, however, have rather generous need-based financial aid provisions for lower income students who are admitted to those schools). Other schools offer very little. Still other schools remain very generous about how much academic scholarship aid they make available. Some form of need-based financial aid is available at all NCAA schools, and probably at all NAIA schools as well, though my world will not come to an end if someone can point out an exception to me. Almost every school across the nation participates in federally-funded need-based academic assistance programs.

Up to this point, we have seen that the amount of the track and field scholarship you might be offered is limited first and foremost by the number of such scholarships available at any given institution.

Some schools deal with this situation by "enhancing" what they're able to offer through restricting their track and field program, or at least the scholarship portion thereof, to one or two event areas. Typically, schools that do this are distance schools (the University of Portland comes readily to mind, but the University of Colorado - Colorado Springs has recently adopted this model as well). These schools run cross country and support only middle distance and distance events in track and field. This means that, even if the school is not fully funded, they can still be at least marginally competitive in what they offer in the way of scholarships to these athletes. It's a means of living within the resources your institution allows. It may also mean that the school can survive as a track and field program without the expense of building its own track and field facility, on the theory that you can do distance fairly well without having an actual track of your own to use daily as a practice venue.

If you don't engage in this kind of event specialization, you must determine how the maximum of 18, 12.6, or 12 track and field scholarships allowed are to be divvied up among the event disciplines in your program. So, at a fully-funded men's program that tries to support the full spectrum of events, you may have 2 of the 12.6 full scholarships going to jumps, 2 to throws, 5 to sprints and hurdles, 2 to pole vault, and 1.6 to distance. Obviously, those allocations are going to vary from school to school. But, when you start thinking of how even a fully funded program might divide up its scholarships between event disciplines, you realize very quickly how few scholarships there are to go around.

You would think that the fact that most schools have their own particular areas of emphasis would help the school to be able to offer larger scholarship amounts in that area of emphasis. The trouble with that conclusion, however, is that a school that emphasizes an event area is usually very good at the event area, thus creating more demand for the scholarships available in that area.

Even though the Air Force Academy is not a scholarship-granting institution, you can see something of this going on in their pole vault program, which is easily one of the best in the nation. Most high school coaches consider a 14-6 high school pole vaulter pretty good. But a 14-6 guy won't even get a sniff at the Air Force Academy. And that's because the best pole vaulters routinely seek out the best programs, thus elevating the cutoff points for consideration within those programs. If the 14-6 guy wanted to be part of an equivalent pole vault program at a scholarship-granting institution, he might be able to walk on there, but he wouldn't be part of the scholarship pool because of the demand on the program. 

Now that we've brought together the ideas of partially funded programs, distribution of scholarships across event areas, and demand on event areas of specialization for particular schools, it starts to become easier to see why scholarship offers in the amounts of 10%, or textbooks, or $1000 for the academic year are not that uncommon. It's not that college coaches especially want to give out scholarships in that small of increments; it's that the situation they have requires them to do things like that to get enough bodies into the track program to work with.

I mentioned earlier that the picture was different--as in tighter--for men than for women. My perception is that more and more women are seeking scholarship opportunities in college track and field, but the demand side of the equation remains higher for men than it is for women.* We've already seen that the supply side of the equation is higher for women than for men, but we haven't yet seen the full picture of why the supply side of the equation is greater for women.

We've seen that, at the DI level, there are 18 track and field scholarships available for women and only 12.6 available for men--at fully funded institutions. If you're wondering why this inequality exists, think simultaneously of Title IX and football. Since none of those 85 football scholarships are going to women, and Title IX requires balance, the difference must be made up somewhere. Track and field is one of the places where the difference is made up.

But it's not just that there are more scholarships allowed per school for women in track and field. It's also that many schools support only women's track and field as a further measure in meeting Title IX requirements at those institutions. The University of Utah and the University of Nevada - Las Vegas are examples of schools that support women's cross country/track and field, but not men's. There is no men's track and field program at either the University of Utah or the University of Nevada - Las Vegas. 

So, the imbalance between men's and women's track and field scholarships is driven by two factors--difference in the number of scholarships allowed and difference in the number of schools supporting men's and women's programs.

Combine this situation with the fact that a greater percentage of male high school track and field athletes than females wish to go on to compete at the college level and you see why getting a track and field scholarship is a much more competitive endeavor for a college-bound male than it is for a college-bound female.

The female counterpart of the young man who is an invited walk-on at a Division I track and field program will almost invariably be a scholarship athlete at a Division I women's program. It's that simple. There's no use in getting chafed about it; it is what it is. If you insist on getting chafed about it, the first item you must change is our society's preoccupation with football.

In any case, that serves to illustrate why scholarship amounts in the range of 50% are not all that uncommon for women who have achieved at a high level coming out of high school. Track and field scholarships in the range of 75 - 100% are far less scarce for women than they are for men. That's not to say such scholarships are commonplace for women, only that you'll find a good deal more of them in the women's programs than in the men's programs.

Even after taking all of the above into consideration, scholarship offers for the same athlete--and for either gender, but probably more so for women--might easily differ by substantial values from institution to institution. In a worst-case scenario, one school might make a substantial offer (20% or more for a male, 50% or more for a female) while another school makes no scholarship offer whatsoever.

There are a handful of likely explanations here. One is that the coaches from the two different schools see differing potential in the same athlete. Track and field recruiting isn't solely about marks. As an example, many coaches seek out undertrained athletes from the high school ranks in hopes of bringing on a gem that other coaches have missed. Another plausible explanation is that School A is fully funded and School B has something on the order of four track and field scholarships to offer. The coach at School B isn't likely to bid as high on the same athlete. As we saw earlier, however, that coach may (or may not) be able to piece together a competitive package through academic-based scholarship assistance. And, finally, we also must consider the scenario where two different coaches have widely differing needs for the skills of the athlete in question. If I'm trying to run a full-spectrum track and field program and already have three horizontal jumpers on scholarship, I'm unlikely to engage in a scholarship bidding war for another horizontal jumper. 

The situation may be even cleaner-cut than that. I might be a coach who carefully allocates scholarships across event areas (among other things, this helps to keep assistant coaches at peace with one another), and I have no available scholarship money for horizontal jumpers this year. Precisely that situation arose with a distance runner coming out of our high school program who hoped to receive some athletic scholarship assistance from a school at the top of her list of choices. The school simply had no available scholarship money for female distance runners that year; all of the scholarship distance runners from that school that year were coming back the next year. No amount of wishing is going to milk a scholarship out of that situation. The coach recruiting the athlete very much wanted her to come to the school, apologized for the unavailability of funds, and promised to prioritize the athlete for scholarship money as a sophomore when some funds would become available, but she could offer nothing for that first year.

Such are the realities of athletic scholarships in a world where supply is exceeded by demand.

And that makes for at least one good reason to have two or three or four schools on your list of options. Presumably each of those schools are good at doing whatever it is, academically speaking, that you want out of a college. But the scholarship offers are likely to vary, and sometimes by more than you'd think, at the different schools. The amount of the scholarship offered should not, of course, be your only consideration in making a decision, but it probably will be among the factors you wish to consider.

If, on the other hand, your heart is fixed on going to a particular school, or being part of a particular coach's program, you very well may have to enter the program as a walk-on. Even then, you may have to meet some standards to be invited to walk on.

Seen that way, it's easier to see why Grandpa's take on things was good advice. 


* - I would be very interested to hear the take of a college coach or two (or ten) on this question. I have little doubt that the quality of female athletes coming out of high school has been rising over the last decade. What I don't have as good of handle on is whether the percentages of high-level female high school track and field athletes wishing to go on to college to compete is also on the rise. Comments are cheerfully solicited on this question (and all questions, but I'm especially interested in a qualified read on this question).