What Is an Athletic Scholarship?

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High school student-athletes may want to pursue a collegiate or professional athletic career. Their options depend first on academic achievement and then on athletic performance. If both academic and athletic levels meet or exceed expectations, student-athletes can receive financial assistance.

Organizations, foundations, companies, and universities offer financial aid to students who have earned it. It is every high school athletic program’s responsibility to fully educate its student-athletes about scholarship opportunities and how to seize them.

Athletic Scholarships Defined

Scholarships are a form of financial assistance offered to students pursuing postsecondary education by foundations, the government, organizations, companies, and schools. Students can receive a wide range of scholarships depending on the requirements.

The most popular scholarship types are academic and athletic. Although each type has a primary focus, both consider academic performance first. It’s critical that interscholastic coaches explain the importance of a strong educational performance to their student-athletes. Universities are schools first, and athletic campuses second. Academic scholarships are awarded based on educational merit, while athletic scholarships are awarded based on educational merit and athletic prowess. When student-athletes approach their later interscholastic years, they need to ask their coaches or athletic administrators about all of the options available to have the best chance of earning a scholarship.

The Candidate Pool

According to NCAA statistics, only 2% of high school athletes will receive an athletic scholarship. The competition is fierce, so student-athletes need to stand out. Coaches who see athletes with potential can help them market their abilities for a better chance of receiving aid. Proactively reaching out to schools and foundations, along with creating a professional online presence, makes it easier for collegiate recruiters and staff to discover potential. Some athletes may be discovered through their sheer competitive edge, but many work to be found.

The NCAA Divisions

U.S. colleges and universities are classified under one of three divisions in the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA). Division I (DI) is considered the highest intercollegiate athletics label under the NCAA. It includes 351 colleges and universities, with 179,200 student-athletes. Around 59% receive financial aid in the form of athletic scholarships.

Division II (or DII) is represented by 308 colleges and universities. It has 121,900 student-athletes, with 62% receiving aid. By far the largest of the divisions is Division III (DIII), which includes 443 colleges and universities. About 80% of DIII student-athletes receive academic grants.

Typically, DIII programs are smaller universities and private schools. As expected, the admissions requirements and academic levels expected from students are different from those required by DI and DII schools. Many of the most popular DIII schools are located in the Midwest, South, and Northeast.

School-Awarded Athletic Scholarships

Division I and II schools are the only programs that offer athletic scholarships, although Division III schools do offer a type of financial aid. Division III schools, typically smaller colleges, grant merit awards to students based on their achievement in any area, including athletics.

Divisions I and II, however, are the real dispensers of athletic scholarships. According to the NCAA, although only 2% of high school athletes receive an athletic scholarship, Division I and II schools provide more than $2.9 billion in athletics scholarships annually.

Partial Assistance for Student-Athlete

Full scholarships cover the cost of tuition, fees, coursework, books, housing, and meals. They are awarded annually, which means they may not be renewed. Student-athletes need to continue meeting specified requirements even after receiving the scholarship, which some students might not be aware of. When applying for scholarships, high school coaches need to carefully explain the consequences of faltering grades or athletic performance.

Most student-athletes won’t receive a full scholarship. Instead, DI and DII schools will offer partial scholarships that cover only housing and tuition or school supplies and a meal plan. Instead of relying solely on a full scholarship, student-athletes need to apply for as many partial scholarships as possible. They can utilize resources such as their coaches, athletic directors, and college recruiters to find every scholarship opportunity possible. Some might not be eligible with others, but there is no limit on how many scholarships a student can attain.

The Statistics

Passionate student-athletes might see collegiate athletics as the only course, with an athletic scholarship the only option. It can be difficult for them to realize the full breadth of competition when they think about their future. This is where high school athletes need help from their families and athletic teams to understand every possibility.

According to the National Federation of State High School Associations (NFHS), roughly 7.9 million athletes participated in interscholastic athletics during the 2017-2018 school year. In contrast, Division I and II athletic programs award just over 150,000 scholarships annually. That number matches the NCAA reports showing only 2% of high school athletes will receive an athletic scholarship. If student-athletes don’t focus on their grades and maintain the minimum, they rule out other scholarship options predicated on academics.

Why Choosing Division III Schools Is a Good Option

Many student-athletes who compete under the DIII banner love the sport and relish the competition, though others may not be as focused on sports as students who pursue their education at DI and DII schools. The prestige of playing for major DI and DII colleges and universities may not be present in DIII, but student-athletes still enjoy an exciting learning environment where they can pursue higher education while participating in the sport they excel at. DIII schools host a wide number of sports, including basketball, baseball, volleyball, and football, as well as less popular sports, such as bowling, water polo, rowing, and ice hockey.

Benefits of Playing for Division III Schools

Division III is like the youngest sibling in the NCAA, yet it has become the largest college sports division. It currently has the most institutions and student-athletes under its wing. DIII schools are often viewed as the institutions for student-athletes who failed to make the senior high school varsity team, but these students may just have different priorities and access to opportunities. Due to less pressure in upping their sports performance to keep a scholarship, DIII student-athletes can focus on both academics and sports while interacting with other students in a community-like environment.

Unlike DI and DII programs, Division III programs do not grant athletic scholarships. As such, students who enroll in these schools need to build their credentials based on other forms of merit. Although sports-based financial aid is not available to DIII student-athletes, they can seek financial aid to cover their education costs via needs-based assistance and leadership grants. As such, student-athletes with a very good showing in academics and other key accomplishments can still earn excellent financial support from their schools.

DIII is considered the lowest level in terms of competition, but many DII-level and even DI-level athletes choose to enroll in Division III schools. Although some student-athletes prefer DIII schools for academics, many also consider the overall aid package these schools offer to be better. In fact, some DIII schools offer academic-based merit awards and other accomplishment-based aid that could reduce tuition costs by as much as 100%.

Athletic Administrators: Beneficial Resources

If student-athletes still have questions about what an athletic scholarship is, athletic administrators will help them find the information needed. Scholarships can involve complex application processes, difficult requirements, and multiple deadlines. High school athletes should utilize coaches’ and athletic directors’ experience and knowledge if they want to receive collegiate assistance. Athletic administrations naturally cooperate with athletic scholarship processes and are the first to know about any annual changes. They are a high school athlete’s best chance at receiving a substantial athletic scholarship.

Learn More

Ohio University’s online Master of Athletic Administration specializes in developing interscholastic athletic directors, building on students’ passion for serving young student-athletes and running a highly successful athletic department. Ohio University is a pioneer in sports education. As the first degree in the field of sports administration, the online Master of Athletic Administration is recognized today as the premier professional training program for candidates seeking careers in the sports industry.

Discover how completing the online Master of Athletic Administration degree from Ohio University can help you prepare your student-athletes for collegiate competition.

Recommended Reading

Ohio University Blog, “A High School Athletic Director’s Guide to Pay-to-Play Sports”
Ohio University Blog, “Encouraging Multisport Athletes”
Ohio University Blog, “Including Parents in Interscholastic Sports”


NCAA, “More College Students Than Ever Before Are Student-Athletes”
NCAA, Recruiting FactsNCAA, Scholarships
NCAA, “2018-19 Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete”
NFHS, “Participation in High School Sports Registers First Decline in 30 Years”
U.S. News, “4 Myths About Athletic Scholarships”