Merit aid vs. Athletic scholarship money

Will pursuing Merit aid be more realistic than an athletic scholarship?

This is a difficult question to answer because there are so many factors that go into a high school athlete receiving athletic scholarship money or Merit aid.

Merit aid is a financial reward given to a student from a college based on their academic record and/or some other unique talent that the student possess (perhaps you are a classical pianist that plays all over the world at age 17). Merit aid is used by colleges as an incentive to get those students to enroll in their college. There are many reasons Merit aid is used. The school might want to up its academic profile by luring stronger academic students. The school might be trying to attract students from a particular State or region of the country to increase its visibility. Or the school might want that classic pianist because it’s good PR for the school!

Let’s get a few things out of the way about Merit money before we discuss athletic scholarships.

In most cases, you do not “apply” for Merit aid or fill out an application. It is usually offered to a student based on their exceptional academic record. There are, however, some schools that have a separate application for Merit aid so you need to check with each individual school you are interested in or applying to.

In most cases, you do not need to fill out any financial aid forms (FAFSA or CSS Profile) to receive Merit Aid. However, some colleges require the FAFSA to be filled out if you are receiving Merit aid and often those are public colleges. There are some private colleges that require financial aid forms to be filled out but many do not. Again, you need to check with each individual college as to their requirements for Merit aid.

Under no circumstance will your athletic skill will be used in the evaluation process for Merit aid. Imagine if colleges started doling out financial aid to athletes because they were good athletes. There would be complete chaos in college sports, or more than there is now. A college and college coach were just placed on probation after the coach was discovered sending emails to recruits saying their Merit aid would be increased upon his written recommendation to the school.

The last trick to Merit aid is that you usually have to apply to a college where you will be unique in some capacity. If you are seeking Merit aid, applying to a local college that gets 50 applications from your high school each year and 15,000 other applications will not be a path to success to receiving Merit Aid. There is on incentive for that school to give Merit aid to a local student who has the same grades as 10,000 other applicants who live nearby. If, however, you can find a school in another part of the region or country that is underserved in the number of applications they get and is trying to attract a student(s) from your region of the country, that will be a better path to potentially receiving Merit aid.

So let’s talk about athletic scholarships. In order to receive an athletic scholarship, you need to be really good at your sport, find a way to display your skills to a college coach, find a coach that has a need for your position (yes, coaches recruit on need), and play a sport that has athletic scholarship money to offer. There is a common misconception that there are athletic scholarships at every school and it’s simply not true. D1 football, D1 men’s basketball and D1 women’s basketball are the only 3 fully funded sports in the country. What does fully funded mean? It means at the D1 level these 3 sports will offer the maximum amount of athletic scholarships that the NCAA say sit can, which is 85 for football, 13 for men’s basketball and 15 for women’s basketball. Every team in the country for these three sports will have those scholarships available.

So are there athletic scholarships in other sports?

Yes, but they are based on individual schools and programs. Schools with more money that want to be competitive in all sports will offer more athletic scholarships in all sports and schools with less money will not. When we get down to sports that do not generate revenue through attendance, the money for athletic scholarships starts to shrink. When this happens, you have many D1 programs with one or two athletic scholarships per team for the coach to divide up between maybe 8 or 10 players or maybe 30 players depending on the sport. A division 1 baseball school is allowed to offer 11.78 athletic scholarships for the entire team. Even if a coach had 11.78 athletic scholarships available, the coach will have a roster of 30+ players. It’s unlikely that any player will receive a full athletic scholarship and more unlikely that the 300+ Division 1 baseball programs throughout the country have 11.78 baseball scholarships to offer.

At the D2 level there will be even less athletic scholarships and at the D3 level there will be NO athletic scholarships as they are not offered at that level.

So despite the money you have invested in your high school athletic career, there simply is not that much athletic scholarship money to go around at the college level, and most of the money available is divided up among many players on the roster in the form of partial athletic scholarships. If you are evaluating private colleges that cost $60,000 to attend, and you are lucky enough to be offered a quarter athletic scholarships, you still need to find $45,000 to pay for college.

So what’s the right answer?

It’s complicated. We believe the best path to success in the college selection and athletic recruiting process is to be the very best academic student you can be, the very best athlete you can be and then try to find colleges where those attributes will be a better fit. If you are able to find colleges off the beaten path that are trying to attract successful academic students and college coaches that are trying to attract good athletes from your region (yes coaches like to recruit in new or different regions), then you will increase your chances of receiving Merit aid and you will potentially increase your chances of playing meaningful minutes as a college athlete. Not every college coach has 300 high school athletes they are evaluating and not every college coach has 300 high school athletes contacting them for recruitment.

One extra thing to consider is this. Any athletic aid you receive will be tied to participating in your sport. If you rely on that aid to pay for school, you must keep playing your sport as long as you attend that school. If you receive Merit aid, it is only tied to you maintaining certain grades. If you no longer wish to be a college athlete your second, third, or fourth year of college and want to “retire” from the team, any Merit aid you have will not be affected in any way. But, if you quit playing your sport because you want to, any athletic aid you receive will be gone. Something to think about!

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