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A Signing Day Celebration (For the Rest of Us)

On the persistent myths surrounding athletic scholarships.

Courtesy of Cole Keister on

Courtesy of Cole Keister on

    February 7 is National Signing Day this year, a.k.a. the earliest day a high school athlete can sign a letter of intent binding them to play at a particular college or university. Many athletes informally commit to schools well before today, so its become more a day of pageantry than anything else. 

    High school athletic departments mark today with photo shoots featuring smiling students dressed in their college’s sweatshirt while seated at a table with coaches proudly standing behind them, looking tough. The pictures promptly pop up on social media where they’re pinned to the top of feeds. School’s post them on their website to accompany a press release. They even make the front page of the sports section—if there’s still a local newspaper—so Grandma can cut out the article and display it on her fridge until its as brittle as late-autumn leaves. 

    I don’t begrudge athletes their celebrations. They’ve worked hard, challenged themselves physically and mentally, and deserve to be recognized. But on a day like today, the rest of us can feel a little miffed. We wonder why other talents and achievements are not recognized with the same fanfare.     

    It would be nice if there was a musical equivalent of the NCAA and we were gifted with signing day pics of cellists and trombonists flanked by conductors with serious faces and batons held elegantly in poised hands. But that’s not the world we live in.

    This day heats up a simmering concern people have about society’s outsized attention to sports, the way we seem to value it above so many other talents and pursuits that are just as worthy. This anger finds focus in the lore so many believe about athletic scholarships.     

    So to soothe yourself, consider this inoculation of information: most college students are not athletes, and most scholarships are not awarded for athletic performance.

    In the fall of 2017, there was an estimated 20.4 million students enrolled in higher education in America. About 14 million of those were “traditional” students, meaning they attended school full-time and were seeking an undergraduate degree. 85% of traditional students are awarded some form of financial aid. 

    At the same time, 420,000 students were NCAA student athletes, and only 2% of student athletes receive an athletic scholarship.

    This means that a mere 0.06% of students receive an athletic scholarship.  

    Why are those numbers surprising?

    We hear about athletes a lot. We love watching sports so much that the total annual revenue generated by college athletics is estimated at $10.6 billion. Institutionalized promotions often sell us a sort of rags-to-riches narrative that says all you have to be is really good at a sport and you can get a free education. As if being good at a sport isn’t its own monumental challenge. As if athletic scholarships cover the full cost of tuition, room & board.

    Also, people lie. Who doesn’t want to bask in the glory and prestige afforded by our reverence of sports prowess? To say that you (or your child) have earned the fabled prize of an athletic full ride is apparently irresistible to some. So they lie. I’ve heard countless stories of students and parents bragging about a scholarship I knew they couldn’t have received. Often I knew this because they claimed to have an award that simply doesn’t exist. Scholarships are not evenly distributed among divisions or sports. The only sports allowed to offer full-tuition scholarships are Division I football, men’s and women’s basketball, and women’s volleyball. While the average amount is $10,400, once you subtract full scholarships out of the pool, the average athletic award is $8,700. So when you hear gossip that the your arch nemesis at a rival high school got a full ride to play golf at the DII school down the road, it’s simply not true. Or least it’s not the whole story.

    Sadly coaches can occasionally be bad actors too. I’ve heard about coaches who will say pieces of an athlete’s financial aid package are really just athletic scholarships in disguise because *wink wink, nudge nudge* the school is not allowed to hand out athletic money but that’s what’s its really for. And who can blame a family for believing them? Its the kind of idea that seems plausible, even logical, in a corrupt world, and one of many reason why rumors about athletic scholarships persist. 

    The more you hear about something, the more likely you are to believe it. The lies compound themselves and then you have earnest families approaching the college search with unrealistic expectations.

    So who gets the most money? Students who need it. $47.1 billion in need-based grants were awarded—mostly by the federal government—in the 2013-14 school year. 

    Private colleges award merit-based money for a variety of reasons, and these scholarships are often just discounts off the total cost of attending. In 2015-16 the average discount rate was 48.6%. That means the average student entering a private college that year was only being charged 51.4% of their school’s price tag.

    The take away? Most people need help paying for college, and there are a variety of options available to them. Period. 

    So if you’re an athlete hoping to play in college, awesome. Go for it! There are so many excellent reasons to play a sport in school. Just don’t think that athletic scholarships are the only way you’ll ever be able to afford it. Chances are you’ll get the money you need from somewhere else, for some other reason. So play for the love of the game, because in 40 years that’s what you’ll remember most.



National Center for Education Statistics (

Statistics Brain (


U.S. News and World Report (

National Association of College and University Business Officers via InsideHigherEd (

Jen ParticaComment