Reality Check: The Delusion of an Athletic Scholarship

Reality Check: The Delusion of an Athletic Scholarship

June 02, 2019

LFG Marketing | June 2019

 Have you noticed that some parents see Little League games and tennis lessons as college-fund investments?

As competitive youth sports have become a full-blown industry requiring more of a family’s time and money, one of the rationalizations for continued participation is the tantalizing possibility that your child could receive a college scholarship for

their athletic prowess. “Scholarship assistance” companies actively market this dream, saying their expert training and/or marketing services can turn your child’s athletic ability into free money for college.

But counting on an athletic scholarship is arguably the most unrealistic and expensive way to pay for higher education. If you think otherwise, a reality check is in order.

The Tough Numbers on Athletic Scholarships

  1. The percentage of scholarship-worthy athletes is very low – and parents tend to wildly over-estimate their child’s ability. Although the numbers vary slightly by sport (see Fig. 1), the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) reports that only 2% of high-school athletes will receive college scholarships in their sport. In other words: out of 50 high-school athletes, only one is good enough to merit an athletic scholarship.

But when it comes to their child’s athletic ability, many parents feel the numbers don’t apply. In a 2019 survey on the cost of youth sports by TD Ameritrade, 40% of parents with children in competitive youth sports said they felt confident their child would get an athletic scholarship. One-third of these parents saw either Olympic or professional athletic careers as a real possibility, and 15 percent said they were “counting on it.” When the difference between expectations and reality is this great, it reflects a serious disconnect.

  1. Most athletic scholarships do not cover all expenses. When parents and young athletes dream about athletic scholarships, they usually talk about a “full ride” that covers all costs. But with the exception of high-revenue Division I glamor sports like football and basketball, most athletic scholarships aren’t full rides; many are less than $5,000.

An athletic department’s budget gives each team a specific number of scholarships, to be divided at the coach’s discretion. If a tennis team is allocated 7 scholarships, the coach might give one highly-coveted athlete a full ride. But most likely, each scholarship will be divided amongst several prospective student-athletes, depending on their financial circumstances and perceived value to the program. If six scholarships are spread across 20 players, the scholarship will be a fraction of the cost of attendance, with the student-athlete and the parents required to make up the difference.

  1. The development costs are steep. To improve their chances of becoming scholarship-worthy, many parents and young athletes commit extra time and resources to becoming better players. One-on-one coaching, summer camps, specialized equipment, out-of-season training and travel teams are seen as essential to maximizing talent and getting the attention of college coaches.

It is expensive. Parents in the TDA survey reported spending between $100–$499/mo. per child on elite youth sports; 20 percent of families spent $1,000 or more. For some sports, the costs are even higher: Wintergreen Research found families with children playing elite level youth hockey typically spent over $25,000 annually. “(Youth sports) is a machine. To be part of the machine, you have to buy in early and often,” said Travis Dorsch, a former NFL player and Assistant Professor at Utah State University.

These costs strain household finances. Sixty percent of the parents surveyed said the cost of youth sports has them concerned about their ability to save for the future. Over 70 percent said they cut out extras, saved less, tapped college funds, or delayed retirement to pay for sports. Does this sound like good financial management?

  1. Injuries and burn-out are wild cards. Even if a child is blessed with great athletic ability, and even if the family can afford the best training and opportunities for exposure, a scholarship is far from certain.

There can be career-ending injuries: recurring concussions, broken bones, torn ligaments can diminish skills or preclude participation.

And some young athletes burn out; they lose interest, discover other passions. The pressure of using sports to pay for college may actually increase the likelihood of burn-out. Dorsch found that:

“The more money families spend on sports, the less their children enjoy it. We would have expected that kids of means are going to have more fun and be more committed because their parents can afford all the best equipment and coaches, but we found the exact opposite…Kids perceive the emotional and financial investment in their extracurricular activities as unwanted pressure.”

Get Real About Athletic Scholarships

Good parenting often involves financial sacrifices, and only you can truly weigh the value of those sacrifices. But in general, sacrificing to pursue an athletic scholarship isn’t realistic.

Participation in youth sports offers many positives for kids. But when the purpose of participation is a scholarship, sometimes playing becomes a job instead of a joy – for both the athlete and the parents.

Lifetime Financial Growth, LLC is an Agency of The Guardian Life Insurance Company of America® (Guardian), New York, NY. Securities products and advisory services offered through Park Avenue Securities LLC (PAS), member FINRA, SIPC. OSJ: 244 Blvd of the Allies, Pittsburgh, PA 15222 (412) 391-6700. PAS is an indirect, wholly-owned subsidiary of Guardian. This firm is not an affiliate or subsidiary of PAS. 2019-80670 EXP 05/2021