sportsvirtual children by Scott Warnock

The myth of the college athletic scholarship

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Someday I’ll break the NFL addiction, but it won’t be 2017. I’m nestled in watching playoff football lately, which means I’m also watching a repeated cycle of commercials. Toyota has one in which a hard-working young lad and his parents go through a path filled with bumps and bruises that ends up with a smiling college football coach offering him a full scholarship. That’s some good theater: Everyone’s all teary-eyed that the lad made it!

But for the vast majority of athletes, that’s not how it goes.

In “The Myth of the Sports Scholarship,” The Chronicle of Higher Education’s Brad Wolverton shows how the concept of “sports scholarship” is not what it appears. Think about some facts and figures:

  • 8 million kids play high school sports.
  • 170,000 get a scholarship (that’s 2%).
  • Most of even that 2% get nowhere near enough to cover most of their college costs.
  • Only six sports provide the idealized “big scholarship”: football, men’s and women’s basketball, women’s gymnastics, women’s tennis, and women’s volleyball. In other sports, “scholarships don’t come close to covering the full cost of every athlete’s education.”

Wolverton focuses on one big school, NC State: Of the 558 athletes, more than 200 had 20% or less of their costs covered by sports scholarships. By the way, other than the big six sports, only 27 other athletes have full rides.

There’s nothing wrong with the dream. The issue is the way it’s been packaged and grasped onto by often desperate parents.

As any athlete will tell you, if you love your sport and want to attend college, getting any sports-related money would be a tremendous boon. As a D3 wrestler for a small (and woeful) program at Rutgers-Camden, I was thrilled that my “scholarship” took the form of a cushy work-study job as a gym lifeguard. That was good enough for me — and more than adequate for my talents.

What if your kid, after all those years, doesn’t want the full-time job of a D1 athlete? Maybe he or she just wants to go to school. Even though I wasn’t in anything close to a D1 program, during the season I made a seven-day-a-week commitment, probably 10 to 12 workouts each week. Without question, that experience shaped me into who I am today. I wouldn’t trade it. But that experience was driven solely by me. I had no external money pressures to continue competing.

In my current job, I sit with many students who can barely keep going in the pressure cooker of college in 2017. Only a select few could put sports on top of that.

One of these days, I’m going to break down the costs of youth sports, even for a non-obsessed family like ours. Registrations, gear, gas, medical costs – it quickly adds up to far more than the typical small scholarship would offer.

I’m writing from a weird stance. I love sports. I love the dream. I even like that Toyota commercial. As a teacher and coach, I believe in human potential. If your little tyke wants to be a star, let them go for it. But to paraphrase how Wolverton ends his article, you need to know what you’re getting into. If you try to turn the joy of youth sports into a financial investment, you need to do some homework about what the word “scholarship” really means.

Scott Warnock is a writer and teacher who lives in South Jersey. He is a professor of English at Drexel University, where he directs the University Writing Program. Father of three and husband of one, Scott is on two local school boards and coaches all kinds of youth sports.

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3 Responses to “The myth of the college athletic scholarship”

  1. True on all points Scott. You and I have had these conversations concerning a certain college softball player. She realized early on in her college search and recruiting that a D1 program was not what she wanted but she did want to play. The choices she made we’re all hers. She did not receive any athletic scholarship but instead was granted in state tuition, a good deal.
    For your own sanity, do not add up those costs. Instead, cherish the memories of the practices, games, traveling to tournaments, friendships made, team dinners, seeing your child mature both on and off the field and telling your athlete, “I love to watch you play.” In that, the return on the investment is priceless.

  2. What’s the alternative? Sitting around the house beating up your siblings. Hanging out at the mall? Does that even happen anymore? Texting all nite, searching the internet for some trouble. Sports teach teamwork, leadership and tire the little bastards out. And I know a lot of companies look to hire college athletes with a 3.0. There was an article in WSJ couple weeks ago about a banker from Morgan Stanley. He hired people from big families, college athletes and felt these people could work well together in groups. When he jumped to another bank 100 of his employees followed him. Athletes want to compete and win no matter the playing field.

  3. Where’s HRC when you need her?
    Scholarships for everyone!
    Free college!!
    Alas, the pantsuit is back on a hangar.
    Long live the vi-jay-jay hats!

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