Recruiting: A Primer on Track and Field Scholarships

... or several important facts you should know about the availability of college track and field scholarships.


Note: This article follows the format of previous articles. Alan Versaw's words are in plain text and Jay Johnson's in italics. Thank you for dropping in to read the latest installment.


Any discussion of scholarship amounts for athletes in cross country and track and field must begin with some simple facts. These facts concern what sports are covered by track and field scholarships and the number of track and field scholarships the NCAA allows its member schools. We'll cover these facts in the next few paragraphs before moving on to a broader discussion of track and field scholarships.

All NCAA cross country scholarships are lumped under track and field. So far as the NCAA is concerned, cross country, indoor track and field, and outdoor track and field are one and the same sport--at least for the purpose of counting scholarships.

At the Division I level, women's programs are allowed 18 full scholarships or the equivalent thereof in partial scholarships. Men are allowed 12.6 full scholarships or the equivalent thereof.

Why the difference? In a word, football.

Because of the large number of football scholarships issued by Division I schools (and still a large number, though not quite as many, issued by Division II schools), scholarships in sports such as track and field must be tilted toward women in order to bring about the kind of equity mandated by Title IX regulations. Love it or hate it, Title IX applies the federal pressure that mandates women get more track and field scholarships than men in Division I programs.

Things are a bit different at the Division II level. NCAA Division II schools are allowed 12.6 track and field scholarships for men and 12.6 scholarships for women. While the demand for track and field scholarships across genders may or may not be the same, the supply is. Even that, however, is subject to the qualification that some schools (at both Division I and Division II levels) only offer track and field for women. Typically, this is done to help the school achieve the gender balance required under Title IX.

Not every school makes available the full allotment of scholarships that the NCAA allows for schools in their division. A school that offers the full allotment is said to be "fully funded."

Most Division I schools in major conferences are fully funded. Once you move away from the major conferences, however, fewer programs are fully funded. At the Division II level, many more programs are not fully funded. In fact, many of the top cross country and track and field programs in Division II are not fully funded.

Divison III schools, though many have outstanding track and field programs, are allowed no athletic scholarships. The Ivy League schools also have no athletic scholarships. While the service academies have no athletic scholarships, potential athletes are often given preferential status for appointments. Athletes are also typically provided preferential treatment for admission at Ivy League schools.

NAIA schools offer athletic scholarships, but the recent trend of NAIA schools moving to NCAA affiliation suggests that the pool of available track and field scholarships at these schools may be slowly dwindling.

For state schools, a scholarship for an out-of-state student "costs" more than it does for an in-state student. With funding increasingly becoming an issue, we may see a trend toward more state school athletic scholarships being directed toward in-state athletes. Private schools are, in general, not subject to this sort of accounting imbalance between different groups of student-athletes, though some private religious schools may have differentiated tuition rates for students of a particular religious affiliation.

If you're a distance runner in a state with a lot of strong distance programs, like Colorado, this may turn out to be good news for high school distance runners in that state. If you're a high school distance runner is a state with a relatively small number of strong college distance programs, the news may not be as encouraging. The "good news," however, may be tempered by the fact that funding for athletic scholarships is currently in decline at many schools. Even if a higher percentage is directed at in-state student-athletes, there may still be a net decline of scholarship opportunities for in-state students.

But why would it matter if a state has strong distance programs or not? Wouldn't any college or university in the state with a track and field program offer some of their 12.6 or 18 scholarships to distance runners? Not necessarily.


Remember, these are track and field scholarships. If a school wishes to emphasize its sprint/hurdles program, its throwing program, or its jumping program, it may offer few, if any, of its scholarships to distance runners. This tends to be more the case in the deep South states than in other parts of the nation.

Have you asked yourself, "When was the last time a school from the deep South won a national title in cross country?" In part, the answer has to do with the fact that distance running isn't necessarily pleasant where heat and humidity dominate through most of the year. But, it also has to do with the emphasis on explosive events at schools like LSU, Auburn, and Georgia.

Outside of the deep South, it isn't entirely uncommon to find schools that devote the entirety of their available track and field scholarships to distance runners. Currently, Portland and Oregon State (women only) are two such programs. Northwestern University only has cross country. Distance athletes who wish to compete in track and field at Northwestern must participate on a club basis or as unattached athletes and are not eligible for the NCAA national championships in track and field.

Understand also that "full-ride" athletic scholarships are rare for track and field athletes. While some athletes end up with scholarships covering all of their school-related expenses, these quasi full-rides are typically the result of packaging need-based and academic financial aid with a partial athletic scholarship. With only 12.6 (or 18) scholarships to offer, a school needs to be pretty convinced of an athlete's ability to deliver conference championships and big points at the national championship meet to provide a full-ride athletic scholarship. Even then, the schools will typically try to do what they can to free up some of that athletic scholarship money through applying various other forms of financial aid.

Unfortunately, not all schools have even remotely equal amounts of need-based and academic financial aid available to offer incoming students. Thus, the total package offered by two different schools may be dramatically different even when both schools are equally as anxious to sign the recruited athlete to a track and field scholarship.

An athletic scholarship is a one-year contract between a student athlete and the school he or she signs with. The contract may be renewed for up to five years. Neither the school nor the athlete is obligated to renew the scholarship each year, however.


The athlete may only compete for four seasons in each of cross country, indoor track and field, and outdoor track and field. If an athlete stays under scholarship for five years, one of those years in each sport must be a "redshirt" season where the athlete does not represent the school in competition. Typically, redshirt seasons are taken in the event of an injury or to allow an incoming athlete to gain some additional physical maturity before entering competition in the school uniform.

Some schools add to the previous year's scholarship amount upon renewal if an athlete performs well. Sometimes, walk-ons are extended athletic scholarship aid if their performances warrant being placed on scholarship. Other schools keep the level of aid static throughout the four or five years of the athlete's time at the school. If you want to know what the practices of a particular program are in this regard, you should ask that question at some point in the recruiting process.

If a scholarship athlete leaves a school, the athletic scholarship is forfeited and the scholarship is freed up for use by other student athletes.

There, now you can exhale. Unless you came into this discussion much better informed than most of your peers, you know more about track and field scholarships than you did. Hopefully, this information will help you to evaluate offers from schools in a more objective fashion.

Alan really did a fantastic job writing this comprehensive overview of scholarships for track and field athletes.  I'll add the following to what Alan laid out, with most of it opinion, and at that, just one former collegiate coach's opinion.

While I agree with Alan that some state schools may be forced to be cautious about how many scholarships they offer to out-of-state student athletes, the reality is that most high school recruits won't know this is going on. And it'll be subtle. If there is an out-of-state student that the school really wants then they'll still offer a big scholarship to that one student, then focus their recruiting in that event area on in-state kids. 

And this leads to something that underlies all of Alan's thoughtful comments, but isn't explicitly stated. 

Each program has a focus - distance, sprints/hurdles, throws or jumps - but within each program the head coach is making a decision as to how his or her most valuable resource, the athletic scholarship, will be used to achieve the their goals for the program. What often happens is that a school will have a primary focus, say sprints/hurdles, and more scholarship dollars go to that area than the other three.  But, after that, the scholarship money will often to go to the event area that can bring in the best recruit(s).


In many programs the assistant track coaches are working hard to recruit talent in their respective event area and often times the head coach will simply say, "If you can get 'em, then I'll give you the money."  By no means is this how every program is organized, but elements of this can be found in most programs. For instance, the head coach may take the 12.6 mens scholarship and earmark 11.0 of them to the various event areas and coaches at the beginning of the year, yet leave 1.6 unaccounted for. That 1.6 may end up as two humans, one on a full ride (the 1.0) and another one 0.6, or it could end up as eight athletes on 0.2. 


And it isn't crazy to think that an assistant would work with just 20% scholarships (the 0.2). An NCAA Division I coach, whose team annually qualified for the NCAA Cross Country Championships, once said he really only needed 2.0 scholarships to do that, and the program, i.e. the track and cross country program, would be better off getting sprinters and jumpers on full rides as the goal of the program was finishes at the conference outdoor track meet and the NCAA meet. 

Bottom line is that with information that Alan has given you you're informed about the basics of how scholarships work, yet you'll need to get to know each individual program and the head coach to understand their goals and how scholarships help them achieve their goals.

I want to reiterate how important it is to know that NCAA scholarships are a one-year deals, and coach can't promise you any more than one year at the scholarship level listed on your letter of intent. This is misunderstood by most families and, while the majority of students do not have their scholarship "pulled" or reduced after the first year, no school can guarantee you anything more than one year's scholarship. This is a great fact to know as it simply shows the coach that you've done your homework.

Regarding redshirting, the way I think about it is this: Plan to graduate in four years, even though you have five years to compete. You'll likely get hurt or injured along the way and, if you do, then you'll take a redshirt season - not the whole year - for cross country, indoor, or outdoor track. If you want to stick around, or if the coach wants you to stick around, then you'll be able to.


At this point the athlete and the coach can figure out if it's going to make sense to compete with that final year of eligibility. If the coach really wants the athlete to compete that year then they will likely put the athlete on some level of scholarship money or, as in many cases, the athlete's scholarship is bumped up significantly their last year. But, again, this is something that each program handles differently and if the program can't explain to you how they deal with redshirt years and scholarships then you probably want to reconsider that program. Every program has a different view of this, and they should be able to communicate that clearly to you. 


Jay Johnson's web site:


Other articles in the series:

Asking the Right Questions, Part I

Asking the Right Questions, Part II

Men's Track and Field Scholarships