Here's How to Increase Your Child's Odds of Getting a College Athletic Scholarship

Swedish climate activist Greta Thunberg, centre, arrives for a meeting in the French National Assembly, in Paris, France, Tuesdays, July 23, 2019. (AP Photo/Rafael Yaghobzadeh )

College athletic scholarships are the dream for many parents. In addition to not having to pay for your kids’ college education or having them pile up a mountain of debt, there’s a certain prestige to seeing your offspring go off to college based on their athletic prowess. It’s pretty much the epitome of a win-win scenario.

Even if they only get a partial scholarship, such an offer can streamline the college decision process.

However, if you want your child to make it to the college level as an athlete, it helps if they pick the right sport. Patrick O’Rourke, a certified public accountant in Washington, D.C., did some number crunching:

His findings led him to create, which offers a comprehensive look into collegiate athletic programs and the number of scholarships they offer. It wasn’t only a great way to win a dinner argument — only 576 colleges offered lacrosse last season, compared with 1,673 that offered baseball — but it was a sobering reminder of just how unlikely it is that a high-school athlete will earn an athletic scholarship, never mind a free ride.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) notes that there are roughly 8 million high-school student athletes in the U.S. Of those, only 480,000 go on to play a sport at an NCAA school. All of those athletes are vying for a portion of the scholarship funds that the NCAA values at $2.9 billion. Some students will get enough money to cover tuition and room and board, but many will only get a partial scholarship. And college costs have risen a lot in recent years. According to the College Board, it costs an average of $20,092 to cover tuition, room and board for a year at a public college as an in-state student. At a private college, it costs an average of $45,385.

The numbers are somewhat surprising. For example, male high school gymnasts have a better chance of picking up a scholarship (20:1 odds) than a high school wrestler (176:1 odds). Meanwhile, girls rowing in high school are far more likely to get an offer to compete at the next level (2:1) than girls who run track and field (64:1).

Of course, even if your child gets offered a scholarship, there are only a handful of “full ride” scholarship available.

Just about the only student athletes assured full scholarships are those recruited for “head count” sports that assign full scholarships to the overwhelming majority of athletes on the team. Head-count sports include football, men’s and women’s basketball, and women’s volleyball (though women’s tennis and gymnastics sometimes fall into this equation). Division I schools offer as many as 85 full scholarships for football, 13 for men’s basketball, 15 for women’s basketball and 12 for women’s volleyball. The odds of getting a scholarship for each during the 2013-14 season, the last for which data were available, were 43:1 for football and women’s basketball, 57:1 for men’s basketball and 53:1 for women’s volleyball. The University of Notre Dame, for example, estimates the total cost of attendance for the 2017-18 school year (tuition, room and board, books and supplies, transportation and personal expenses) at $69,395. That’s roughly $5.9 million in scholarship money a year just for the storied Notre Dame football team. (Each school determines its scholarship dollar amounts on its own.)

That means that while your children’s choice of playing some fairly obscure sport may increase her chances of getting offered a scholarship, she (or you) may still be on the hook for tens of thousands of dollars in tuition money. Additionally, she’ll be bound by any and all guidelines for athletes over and above what is expected of the average student.

None of that should dissuade your children from pursuing their dream of collegiate athletics, but a healthy dose of reality never hurt anyone.