Ways to Fund Your College Experience as a Student-Athlete

Updated on May 22, 2024

How to Fund College as a Student-Athlete

With the average cost of college continuing to rise, financing your college education as a student-athlete can be a challenge. Even though athletics can often open doors to greater college opportunities, scholarships rarely cover the full cost of tuition, room, and board. However, with the right resources and strategies, you can successfully fund your college experience and balance your athletic and academic commitments.

In this article, Honest Game will explore different ways to pay for college, such as using a combination of scholarships, financial aid, and student loans.

What Scholarships are Available for Student-Athletes?

Scholarships are an incredible source of financial assistance for student-athletes and unlike loans, scholarship funds don’t require repayment – an assurance that can vastly reduce financial stress and help you focus more on your studies and sport.

Athletic and academic scholarships share two very important commonalities: they’re offered as a reward for superior performance and they help to fund education. However, there are some distinct differences.

Athletic Scholarships

An athletic scholarship is a financial aid awarded to a student-athlete from the college athletic department budget. These scholarships are awarded based on the college coach’s opinion of the student’s athletic abilities and how they can contribute to the team. The decision on who receives athletic scholarships (and how much) is dependent on the coach; however, the number of athletic scholarships at each school is capped by NCAA regulations and varies by sport and division level. Note, many college budgets do not offer the maximum number of scholarships allowed by the NCAA.

To receive an athletic scholarship, you must be accepted to the school and if the school is part of the NCAA or NAIA, the Eligibility Center must deem you eligible by meeting certain academic requirements.

One of the biggest misconceptions about athletic scholarships is that all student-athletes who compete in college receive them. That’s not necessarily the case – not all colleges offer athletic scholarships, and only programs at the NCAA Division I, DII, NAIA, and junior colleges are allowed to offer athletic grant-in-aid. With more than 183,000 student-athletes, NCAA Division III (DIII) schools do not offer athletically related financial aid, but most student-athletes receive some form of academic scholarship (merit) or need-based grant.

NCAA DI sports programs’ athletic scholarships are categorized in two ways: headcount sports and equivalency sports. The sport you compete in drastically affects what kind of athletic scholarship you could receive. All sports in NCAA DII are equivalency sports.

What is the Difference Between a Head Count and an Equivalency Sport in NCAA DI?

The difference between head count scholarships and equivalency scholarships can best be understood as sports that are guaranteed full-ride scholarships (head count) versus sports that divide the scholarships as partial scholarships (equivalency).

Head count sports such as NCAA DI men’s and women’s basketball, NCAA DI football (FBS), NCAA DI women’s gymnastics, NCAA DI women’s tennis, and NCAA DI women’s volleyball may only offer full scholarships. If you are offered an athletic scholarship and play one of these sports, the school must award you a full scholarship.

Other sports are considered equivalency sports, and scholarship packages in those sports can vary drastically.

Equivalency sports have a certain dollar amount that can be divided among multiple athletes on the team. For example, if an equivalency sports team has $100 in scholarships and 10 players, it can provide every player $10, or $100 to one player, or some other combination of their choosing. The money equating to one scholarship can be spread to multiple players.

What Do Athletic Scholarships Cover?

According to the NCAA, less than 2% of high school athletes are awarded a full or partial college athletic scholarship. Full and partial athletic scholarships can be applied towards direct college costs including:

  • College tuition and registration fees
  • Room and board (dorms or on-campus housing and meal plans)
  • Miscellaneous fees, e.g., orientation, technology, facilities (gyms, libraries), and student activities (Greek life, clubs, etc.).

Unfortunately, even if you are awarded a full scholarship, it may not be enough to cover the indirect college costs. Indirect college costs do not appear on your college bill but are additional expenses associated with attending school, such as textbooks, transportation to and from school, meals, and insurance premiums. It is important to read your scholarship offer in its entirety before signing as these costs can add up.

How Do Student-Athletes Cover the Indirect Costs of College?

For DI student-athletes that receive an athletic scholarship, the NCAA provides DI schools with the “Student Assistance Fund”, (or SAF) as a way to provide additional financial resources to athletes, helping cover unforeseen expenses throughout their schooling. SAF money comes mostly from NCAA March Madness revenues, which are then distributed to member institutions by way of their conference offices. Each college can decide how to disperse SAF money and which students benefit from such funds.

Common costs covered by a school’s SAF include:

  • Clothing and/or travel from campus to home and other essential expenses
  • Summer school and 5/6th year aid
  • Academic course supplies (e.g., notebooks and pens)
  • Medical and dental costs not covered by another insurance program
  • Costs associated with student-athlete or family emergencies

Top Myths About College Athletic Scholarships

There are several myths that you and your family need to keep in mind when planning out your college pathways.

Myth #1 – All athletic scholarships are a full ride.

Only 57% of Division I athletes receive some form of financial aid, ranging from a book scholarship to a “full ride.” The amount is slightly higher in Division II at 63%. Given the low odds of receiving a full-ride college athletic scholarship, most athletes will have the best chance of having their college education funded by seeking a combination of athletic and academic scholarships, plus financial aid.

Myth #2 – Every school offers athletic scholarships.

Most NCAA DI, DII, and NAIA schools offer athletic scholarships; however, NCAA DIII schools and Ivy League schools do not.

Even though NCAA DIII schools are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships, close to 80% of DIII student-athletes receive some form of merit and/or “need” based assistance in the forms of grants and financial aid.

Myth #3 – Athletic scholarships are good for four years.

Every scholarship is awarded on an annual basis and renewed based on the coach’s discretion. Students will sign their athletic scholarship (or Grant in Aid) every year to be applied to their bill the following year. If a coach and/or athletic department decides not to award a scholarship to a student the following year, they must inform the student in writing that their Grant in Aid is either being reduced or non-renewed by July 1. Students then have an appeal period, and the process is usually conducted outside of the Athletic Department.

Myth #4 – Verbal Commitments and National Letters of Intent are guaranteed.

A verbal commitment with a coach is not a binding agreement, but more of a “handshake agreement.” Verbal commitments are usually honored; however, when a coach changes their mind after finalizing their recruit list (or more commonly when a coach leaves the program) the verbal commitment can be revoked.

A verbal commitment may be repealed if a student-athlete demonstrates poor judgment or behavior rising to the level of alarm.

Honest Insight: Even if you signed a National Letter of Intent (NLI), it can be invalidated if you are not admitted to the college, are deemed academically ineligible by the NCAA Eligibility Center, or if you exercise poor judgment or your behavior crosses the line of acceptability.

How to Become Eligible for an Athletic Scholarship?

In order to receive an athletic scholarship to an NCAA DI or DII program, you must meet certain academic standards and be considered an amateur athlete. However, just because you meet the minimum requirements does not mean that you will receive a scholarship.

Keep in mind, strong academics matter and can increase the number of scholarships available and the amount awarded to a student-athlete.

Academic Scholarships

Since college coaches have limited athletic scholarships to offer, academics is one of the most important things to focus on when looking to cover the total cost of your college career. Achieving a high GPA and a strong SAT/ACT score will often provide more money than athletic scholarships.

Academic scholarships are fairly clear cut – if you maintain the minimum GPA for the scholarship that you have been awarded it will be honored into the next school year, given that it is renewable and for all four years. In contrast, an athletic scholarship can be revoked or lowered for various reasons.

In order to be considered for an academic scholarship, student-athletes must meet a minimum academic standard and these are different for every college and university.

College coaches often take advantage of high-achieving academic student-athletes by offering academic scholarship money instead of athletic aid. They will then have the luxury of applying their athletic scholarship budget to other student-athletes who do not necessarily meet the academic scholarship threshold.

Can You Combine Athletic and Academic Scholarships?

Absolutely, but it depends on each playing division and school. There are many student-athletes who earn both academic and athletic scholarships, also known as stacked scholarships, and are able to combine both for a larger financial aid package.

Honest Insight: Each college has its own process and policies regarding the ability to stack scholarships, so you should consult with the school’s Compliance Office or Financial Aid Department to be aware of how everything works for that particular school and how it might apply to your situation in recruiting.

Are There Other Types of Scholarships for Student-Athletes?

Merit-based scholarships can also be awarded to exemplary students on the basis of outstanding academic achievement, extracurricular achievement, demonstrated leadership, and commitment to their communities.

Regardless of your academic or financial situation, many students can receive a merit-based scholarship as long as they demonstrate superior ability in one or more areas. The purpose of merit aid is to reward talent, and talent can come in many forms including artistic talent, leadership ability, and community spirit.

If you champion certain causes or volunteer regularly, your commitment to helping others may earn you a merit-based scholarship.

Sources of funding for merit-based scholarships can include corporations, individuals, colleges, nonprofits, religious organizations, and community groups. Scholarships offer grants of varying amounts and while some provide money for one year, others are renewable for up to four years.

Do I have to Receive a Scholarship to Compete in College Athletics?

No! NCAA DIII and Ivy League student-athletes are all competing in Varsity college athletics without athletic scholarships.

For NCAA DI, DII, and NAIA schools, most programs (regardless of sport) have students on their roster who are not receiving athletic scholarships. Typically, there are more available team roster spots than coaches have scholarships to offer. So, not getting a scholarship doesn’t mean you’re out of luck. Student-athletes can walk onto a team, which means trying out without receiving a scholarship. A “preferred walk-on” is another option, where a student is flagged as a recruit in admissions but is not receiving an athletic scholarship.

Often preferred walk-ons will sign a ceremonial letter of intent on NLI signing day. You may also walk onto a team without a scholarship one year and be given a scholarship the next year, depending on your perceived value. A roster of student-athletes could be comprised of full scholarship, partial scholarship, walk-on and preferred walk-on students.

Financial Aid & Student Loans

Did you know close to 85% of students receive some form of financial aid? In order to create a more complete scholarship package, all student-athletes should look to complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), even if they are offered an athletic scholarship.

FAFSA is a financial aid application that determines your eligibility for federal (and state) grants, loans, and work-study funds administered by the U.S. Department of Education. The information from your FAFSA is used to calculate your Expected Family Contribution (EFC) – an index number that colleges use when determining how much financial aid you’d receive if you attend their school. Each college calculates and uses your FAFSA to determine if and how much additional financial aid they can offer.

Why Every Student-Athletes Should Fill Out FAFSA?

Even if you don’t think you’ll qualify for federal aid, you should still apply. Most colleges and many private scholarships require students to submit their FAFSA to be considered for financial aid. Some colleges will even evaluate your FAFSA to determine what other kinds of scholarships, like merit-based scholarships, you could qualify for. Plus, a college (and college coach) may take your application more seriously when you’ve submitted a FAFSA.

Student Loans & Grants

Most student-athletes pay for college through a combination of scholarships, financial aid, and federal/private loans. In case you don’t qualify for a scholarship or financial aid, student loans can offer a way to bridge that leftover cost gap.

Unlike academic, athletic and merit scholarships and financial aid grants, which don’t have to be paid back, student loans must be repaid (with interest) within a certain period after graduating college.

Most student-athletes are eligible for federal student loans, which often have lower interest rates than private student loans and don’t require a credit check. These loans also offer unique benefits such as income-driven repayment plans, which can make them easier to repay when you graduate.

To apply for a federal loan, students must first complete (and submit!) their FAFSA. After your FAFSA results are sent to your college, your college will send you a financial aid offer, which may include a combination of federal and private grants and a list of which federal student loans for which you qualify. Students do not have to accept the loan, and they can also choose to accept all or part of the loan depending on their needs.

If you don’t receive enough money in loans from the government to cover college costs, a common consideration is private student loans. Credit unions, banks, and online lenders offer these loans. However, you must have good credit and a solid income to qualify. If you don’t meet those requirements, adding a cosigner to your application may help.

What are Additional Ways for Student-Athletes to Earn Money?

Even if you’ve been awarded a scholarship or financial aid to cover the costs of tuition, student-athletes still need money for everyday expenses. Between classes, practices, and games or competitions, finding the time for a job to make some money can be tough.

Fortunately, there are many ways for college athletes to make money including, but not limited to:

  • On-Campus Work – Student-athletes are allowed to hold on-campus jobs. With limited practices during the off-season, student-athletes may find work on campus depending on their course load. A great place to look for an on-campus job is right in the Athletic Department! Those administrators understand your athletic and academic demands, and also will be understanding of your time constraints and ever-changing schedule.
  • Work-Study Program – Student-athletes may qualify for a paid part-time job on-campus as part of a federal or university-funded work-study program.
  • Name, Image, and Likeness (NIL) – Since July 2021, college student-athletes have gained the right to make money from their name, images, and likenesses. Players can accept money from businesses in exchange for using them in products or advertisements, and can also promote themselves or other companies in public appearances.

No matter where you are in the recruiting process, it’s more important for students and families to have access to information to help make decisions about how to finance their post-secondary journeys.

First Bank Chicago provides support to college-bound students and their families with their financial literacy website to help develop knowledge, skills, and habits that are an important stepping stone on the path to financial well-being as an adult.

Still have questions about affording college? Honest Game has teamed up with First Bank Chicago to provide additional support in real-time with our AI chatbot, “Cleo, the Counselor”. Cleo is here to help students and parents navigate their education pathways successfully. She’s like a counselor on demand who can answer questions about scholarships, paying for college, navigating the recruitment process, and more.

Get started with Cleo by typing #payforcollege.

By Courtney Rickard, Honest Game Director of Academics and Compliance
As a former Senior Associate Athletic Director at the NCAA Division I level and with more than 20 years of experience in collegiate athletics, Courtney has advised thousands of student-athletes through the college recruiting and eligibility process for college sports. Interested in virtual counseling with Courtney? Sign up here.