The Basics of Financial Aid & Athletic Scholarships

I get asked quite a bit regarding financial aid what can be done to get a “full ride.” First, I start off by saying that I’m glad you are invested in your child’s future, but let’s go over some basics.  The most important way to create an opportunity for your student-athlete (focus on the word student) is to make their grades the priority.  Making sure that the student’s classroom business is handled is the main key to success in obtaining an athletic scholarship.

Core GPA is defined by the NCAA as a combination of 16 classes, in English, math, physical/natural science, social science, and language arts.  Ten of the 16 core classes must be completed before the start of the student-athlete’s Senior year. Please note that these are just the bare minimum to play and receive a scholarship.  Many colleges and universities have much higher admission requirements.  Meaning, student-athletes must apply to college and go through the admissions process.  Although NCAA Division III schools do not award athletic scholarships, they set their own admission requirements and can offer great merit and need-based scholarships to student-athletes. 

Merit aid are grants & loans based on high academics, talent (includes athletics), leadership, diversity, and geography.  That is why it is so important to get involved in high school. Need-based aid are grants & loans are based on the family’s finances. 

How does the FAFSA play into my scholarship?

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid or FAFSA, is an application that allows you to receive aid from the federal government.  It is available beginning on October 1st of the student-athlete’s Senior year of high school.  This should be prepared annually, as long as the student plans to attend school the following year.  Items that you will need to prepare the FAFSA are:

Regarding tax returns, if your student is planning to attend college in the Fall of 2022, you will need to use your 2020 tax returns to prepare your FAFSA.  After preparing and submitting your FAFSA, the student will receive their Student Aid Report (SAR).  The SAR will include a summary of the financial information submitted, your Expected Family Contribution (EFC), and estimated Federal aid.  The EFC measures the strength of the family’s finances, and their ability to pay for college.  Please know that most families pay more than their EFC number.

Many schools require you to prepare the FAFSA in order to receive any type of aid from them, including athletic scholarships.  Some schools also require you to prepare the CSS profile, which can be found on the College Board’s website.  The CSS profile is used primarily by private colleges, and goes more in-depth into your family’s finances. 

Full Athletic Scholarship vs. Partial Athletic Scholarship

A full athletic scholarship pays for the entire Cost of Attendance (COA).  Items included in a college’s COA are tuition, room & board, books & supplies, transportation, and the student’s personal items (ex. athletic insurance).  Anything covering less than that is considered a partial athletic scholarship.  If you are offered a full-tuition scholarship, know that it covers tuition, and does not include the other costs associated with attending college.

How many scholarships are awarded to student-athletes?

To put things in perspective, the site Scholarship Stats breaks down the athletic scholarship limits during the 2020-2021 academic year.  Head Count sports are truly sports that can only give a certain number of scholarships to a maximum number of student-athletes.  Head Count sports in the NCAA Division I are basketball, FBS football, tennis, volleyball, or women’s gymnastics.  For example, a NCAA Division I college can only award 13 student-athletes men’s basketball scholarship.   These can be full or partial scholarships, but the scholarships cannot be given to more than 13 student-athletes. You can visit the NJCAA resources page for their rules regarding head count sports. 

Equivalency sports are sports where one scholarship can be divided up partially amongst several student-athletes, based on the criteria set by the NCAA, NAIA or NJCAA. 

Coaches or colleges will send you a financial aid award (offer) letter.  Please note the official offer letter comes from the college, and not the coaches.  Make sure you are comparing apples to apples when comparing your offer letters.  Does it clearly state all expenses to attend college? Are you receiving a partial or full scholarship?

Depending on the division of athletics, the student-athlete will receive their National Letter of Intent (NLI).  This is a binding agreement between a prospective student-athlete and the college.  The student-athlete agrees to attend the college full-time for one academic year, and the college agrees to provide athletic financial aid for one academic year, based on the official offer letter.


Complete the FAFSA as soon as possible. My suggestion is around the time you file your first college application. For those filing early, it is normally around November 1st. The bottom line is that the amount of money most student-athletes are getting for athletic scholarships, is far less than the cost of attendance. Ask yourself-do you want to go D1 or D free?  Academics and grades matter! If you can combine a merit scholarship, with your athletic scholarship, you could be in a financial situation comparable to the few student-athletes who receive true full rides.

Janae McCullough-Boyd is founder and CEO of More Than Athletics, LLC, where she assists both athletes and non-athletes launch their college careers to build success and happiness.  Read more about her and her work here.

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