College Recruiting: A Give and Take, Part II - Scholarship Amounts

Few issues for the college-bound student-athlete and his or her parents generate as much interest and angst as the amount of the scholarship offered. In this installment of the series, Alan Versaw leads off with a high school coach's perspective and Jay Johnson responds from the point of view of the college recruiting coordinator.


Okay, Jay, let’s start with an easier topic. I think you and I will find a great deal of common ground on this issue: What about the question of how much scholarship money high school athletes (and their parents!) expect to receive coming into college?

The starting point of any discussion here has to be the number of available scholarships: 18.0 per school for women and 12.6 per school for men in Division 1, and then 12.6 per school for both men and women in Division II. I don’t know if NAIA has any similar limitations on numbers.

It shouldn’t take a very perceptive individual to understand that this mandates some serious spreading of the frosting. We all hear about the occasional full-ride student-athlete, but when you divide the available scholarships by five—according to the number of years most student-athletes take to use up their NCAA eligibility, you realize schools have maybe four full scholarships (or equivalent) to award for women and a little over two for men with each incoming class. And that assumes that the school in question is fully funded! Many schools, especially many Division II schools, are not fully funded, meaning they have fewer—often far fewer—than the maximum number of scholarships available to offer.

On this question, I land squarely in the corner of the college track coach, except for one troubling little factor: many of these coaches don’t do a very good job, if they do any job at all, of explaining this at the beginning of the recruiting process. I don’t know if it’s assumed that the high school coach will explain it to the athlete, if the athlete will figure it out on his/her own, or just what, but way too many promising high school athletes find out way too late in the process that they will be offered but a fragment of the 20 – 50% they were expecting. That leads to anger and disillusionment, much of it entirely avoidable.

I try to do a good job of explaining to my athletes not to expect much. Honestly, I have to tell most of our guys not to expect anything, and to be delighted if they are offered anything beyond an invitation to walk on. Of course, I’ve never coached anyone who could chase down German Fernandez.


But, frankly, a very large number of high school coaches don’t know or haven’t really thought over the implications of the numbers I just talked about. Equally as many high school coaches prefer not to be involved in the process and leave parents and athletes more or less on their own. And, ultimately, it isn’t the job of the high school coach to break down the arithmetic of the available scholarships for the college coach. I can’t possibly know the particulars every college program’s situation and, even if I could, it isn’t my story to tell.

This is a great place for us to start the discussion, yet before I talk specifics let’s take a step back and consider the following: how often does a auto mechanic, mortgage broker, or anesthesiologist simply and clearly explain what they’re going to do for a client or patient? Some do, but the vast majority struggle to simply and clearly communicate the aspects of their service or craft because to them, the issues are intuitively obvious – they do this 10 times a day and it’s second nature. Now, I’m not saying that college coaches should assume that parents and students know how many scholarships are available, yet the college coach often does assume that the high school coach knows how many scholarships are available. Should the college coach make this assumption? No. But I want you, the reader, to remember that the communication in this process is, like other experiences you’ve had with other professionals, muddled by the fact that one person “does this every day” and for you – the parent, athlete or HS coach – this process is one in which you will not be at fault for asking a lot of questions.

Okay, here’s the deal – you probably don’t know a male distance runner who has received a full ride scholarship to an NCAA DI school that annually makes the NCAA championships. Why? Well, at the Stanfords, the Oregons and Arkansas’s of the world, a boy who runs 1:54, 4:06 and 8:55 for 800m, 1,600m and 3,200m will definitely be recruited, but he won’t get a “full grant-in-aid,” i.e. the “full ride” that everyone talks about. My guess would be that he’d get roughly 50% athletic money at those three schools, so for the remainder of this comparison we’ll say all three schools are offering this young man 50% (Note: This is just my best guess – DO NOT call up these programs when an athlete runs 1:53.9, 4:05.9 and 8:54.9 and ask for “the 50% scholarship Jay talked about.”).

Now let’s assume he has 34 on the ACT. Great – he’ll likely get some academic money at Arkansas and maybe some at Oregon, but Stanford? Not a chance; it’s Stanford and when you walk into a class of 30 kids on that campus and you have 34 on your ACT you’ll be in the bottom fiftieth percentile of ACT scores.

I don’t want to go into too much detail here, but I can safely say that the most frustrating thing during my years recruiting at CU was not being able to offer any academic money to kids who had 35 on the ACT or 1560 on the old SAT. I hated watching other hard-working coaches (Louis Quintana at Arizona State is the first that comes to mind) give that 35/1560 kid at least 50% academic money and sometimes up to 70%. That allows that same coach to offer only 30%-50% athletic money - the same amount that we were comfortable offering - for the kid to tell the local paper that he is going to school on a “full ride.” Did that coach want the athlete more than we did? No. But parents, athletes, and HS coaches often equate the amount of money being offered with “how much they want Johnny,” when the reality is that the schools in question, at least when it comes to athletic money, want him equally because they’re each offering 50% grant-in-aid.

We could go on and on - and we will in the coming weeks – about what you have to run to expect X amount of athletic money, but let me explain what coaches mean when they say 50% grant-in-aid. Each institution comes up with a dollar figure, a figure that includes tuition, fees, room and board, books and usually a small allowance for personal expenses (clothes, travel, etc.). Most schools will call this the “cost of attendance” and state schools will have a different number for their in-state students vs. their out-of-state students: here are CU-Boulder’s current numbers. So if you attend Lincoln HS in Denver and are offered a 50% scholarship then it’s worth about $11,630 (half of the $23,261 – the on campus housing number since you’ll live on campus as a freshman at CU).

There are numerous questions you should have at this point and I’ll let you ask them in the comments section, but let me make something clear – I always hated the idea that Johnny is “worth $11,630” because he can run 1:54/4:06/8:55. Putting a number, a metric, on a person just felt wrong to me, yet I was fairly adept at “getting kids” for 20% when the other DI offers ranged from 50% to 100%. As I write this I can see the faces of two young men who turned down “fulls” at other places to come to CU for 20% - both won Big 12 titles in their respective fortés, both competed at the NCAA outdoor champioinships, and both had their scholarships increased throughout their careers as they ran faster. Not every school “bumps” you up when you run faster, but I can proudly say that Mark Wetmore bumped me from a walk-on to a scholarship athlete in 1995. He does it every year with athletes who deserve it. So even though the system does place a metric on a HS athlete, it’s not inherently amoral or wrong, especially when the end of the story is a great education, great teammates, and big PRs.

Okay, that’s enough for you to digest at one sitting. We’ve not talked about this process for women (it’s totally different), we’ve not talked about this process at DII, DIII, NAIA, or JUCO (they’re all different). We’ve not talked about this process at the Ivy’s or military academies (again, a different process,) and we’ve not talked about why an athlete might turn down multiple scholarships to be a walk-on athlete (you’re on the team, but you’re not receiving an athletic scholarship). Alan and I have a dialogue planned, yet please ask your questions in the comments section below so that we make this project a useful resource for athletes, parents and coaches.


Links to All Parts in Series:

Part I - Introductions

Part II - Scholarship Amounts

Part III - Closure on Scholarship Amounts

Part IV - Role of the High School Coach

Part V - Closure on Role of the High School Coach

Part VI - Transitioning from HS to College

Part VII - Wrap-Up


Updated Recruiting Series

First Article