When Your Child Wants to Become a College Athlete


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Editor’s note: This is the third in a series of blog posts reflecting on the educational pipeline by Karen Gross, former president of Southern Vermont College. She has taught students from preschool through graduate school. Her first piece covered breaking down pre-K–20 silos, and her second piece covered changes in the college admission process. Her next piece will focus on reimagining preschool education. Her children’s book, Lady Lucy’s Quest, was just released.

Many children dream of becoming an athlete in college and then professionally. Parents are excited by the idea of their child receiving a full-ride athletic scholarship, not realizing how challenging it is to obtain and retain one. However, how high school students “get into the collegiate game” is complicated and filled with pitfalls.
Athletic recruiting is a big business. Many books, articles, and movies explore the issue. (See The Blind Side.) NCAA’s rules are numerous. Some provisions make perfect sense. For instance, a student cannot be considered a prospect before ninth grade. Some measures seem absurd. Consider that a college recruiter cannot even buy a cup of coffee for a Division III transfer recruit when visiting that student at his or her original institution.
I am familiar with the vagaries of collegiate and professional athletics from being in the trenches both as a parent of a Division I athlete and an educator at a Division III institution. Our son attended a sports academy in his last years of high school after having been a student at an independent K–12 school. He was recruited and competed as a Division I athlete, but he then transferred out of that DI college to a university that did not offer DI sports. He has since graduated from college, earned a PhD, and is now a professor.
I’ve established my own bona fides in athletic recruiting in many ways. While I was president of Southern Vermont College, an NCAA Division III school, I served as president of the New England Collegiate Conference and also participated in the NCAA Division III President’s Advisory Group. I have personally recruited athletes (I’m four for four), and have worked with a remarkable NCAA lawyer on issues involving NCAA rules and possible infractions. I have also written about collegiate athletics for an NCAA magazine and for the online publication CollegeAD.
Based on my experience, I offer six key points to help guide parents, teachers, school counselors, and coaches of students attending independent schools.

Point 1. The NCAA Is More Than Just Football and Basketball.

NCAA’s moneyed sports, with their televised football and basketball championships, receive the lion’s share of public and media attention. Individual NCAA-sanctioned sports that many independent schools offer, such as tennis, golf, and track and field, receive a limited amount of attention.
But here’s what matters: There are currently 24 sports in the NCAA, although that number fluctuates a bit with emerging sports and sports that are dropped. NCAA sports include soccer, fencing, gymnastics, lacrosse, and rifle. Bowling and rowing are options only for women under the NCAA moniker. This year, the NCAA will add beach volleyball.
The bottom line: A student can be an NCAA athlete without being a football or basketball player and still receive the benefits of being part of the NCAA, including national championships. However, he or she must also deal with the NCAA’s obligations and restrictions, and those can be burdensome.

Point 2. Opportunities to Earn Sports Scholarships Exist Outside the NCAA.

Students can play other sports in college that are not sanctioned by the NCAA. Take squash. The NCAA dropped it from its list of sponsored sports in 2010, but some Division I schools continue to offer squash scholarships. And, strangely, men’s rowing, the nation’s oldest collegiate sport, is not part of the NCAA. The sport’s championship is sponsored by the Intercollegiate Rowing Association. Male rowers can receive scholarships, but the dollar amounts tend to be small.
The bottom line: Many competitive collegiate sports do not fit within the NCAA umbrella, but students can still receive scholarships and play in championships. Independent schools offer many of these non-NCAA sports.

Point 3. Another College Athletic Association Grants Many Scholarships.

The NCAA is not the only collegiate athletic governing body. About 300 schools belong to the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which includes 13 sports. Although the NCAA includes more than 460,000 student-athletes and some 1,200 participating colleges and universities, the NAIA covers some 60,000 students — sizable, but not in comparison to NCAA institutions.
Some statistics to note: Of the NCAA’s participating athletes, about 126,000 receive partial or full scholarships. About 90 percent of participating schools in the NAIA give some form of scholarship. So if a student wants an athletic scholarship, he or she has a greater likelihood of obtaining one from a school in the NAIA than one in the NCAA. Indeed, there are almost 450 NCAA Division III schools, none of which are allowed to provide true athletic scholarships.
The bottom line: If a student aims for a scholarship, it is worth investigating NAIA schools. Keep in mind that these programs do not have the NCAA acclaim and have weaker ties to professional sports.

Point 4. Success Does Not Mean Turning Pro.

Many students (and their families) dream of the possibility of “going pro.” But most student-athletes never do. NCAAdata show that fewer than 2 percent of collegiate basketball and football players become pros. For baseball players, the number is 8.6 percent. Nothing to write home about, for sure.
These numbers make it important for a student to choose a college based on more than who coaches his or her particular sport, which college program has the best win-loss record, and which institution produces the most pro athletes. For one thing, coaches can leave. Next, a successful program could mean that new student-athletes, even those who are recruited, do not play initially (if ever). If a student cannot play for whatever reason, is he or she still happy at the institution? It’s crucial to consider the quality of the college’s academics and the range of career options other than becoming a professional athlete.
The bottom line: The definition of success, athletic or otherwise, is not so clear-cut. Success does not equal turning pro.

Point 5. Families Should Start Thinking About Athletic Participation Before 11th Grade.

All NCAA divisions allow walk-ons, and some of these student-athletes have incredible careers. (See the movieGreater about Arkansas’s football player Brandon Burlsworth.) But, this is not the norm.
Colleges typically recruit high school athletes who have participated in extracurricular athletic camps and clinics, particularly in the summer. Football camps, soccer camps, and basketball showcases allow high schoolers to hone their skills and catch the eye of college coaches. Much recruiting starts with these showcases and camps.
Recently, an NCAA rule banned what’s called satellite showcase football camps. These traveling clinics allowed college coaches to observe high school athletes’ skills and help them develop as players. Sadly, those most hurt by the rule change will be low-income kids who cannot afford to travel to attend camps.
Here’s an important caveat: For some collegiate sports, coaches can study national rankings to determine a high school athlete’s ability. Take a golfer with a very low handicap — that ranking speaks for itself. Or consider ski racing, with its international ranking system. A coach can examine a high school skier’s accumulated points in specific races to see how he or she compares with peers. To be sure, that does not address the question of team fit or an athlete’s work ethic.
The bottom line: College coaches recruit at established events and camps. It’s worth considering whether to pursue a sport with a ranking system, if your family can afford to travel from event to event to rack up points or garner national or international ranking.

Point 6. There’s Much Value in Competing in the NCAA’s Division III.

Many people are under the misconception that the only NCAA division with competitive athletics is Division I. I know from experience that Division III offers quality, competitive athletics, too. Students who cannot or choose not to compete at the Division I level can enjoy enormous success in Division III.
Some also believe that Division I actively recruits whereas Division III does not, and that money is only available at Division I institutions. Both statements are wrong.
At the Division III level, students often have more opportunities to play — and sooner. In less hierarchical programs with fewer players, first-year students can play. Division III championships are considered major events for the student-athletes, the coaches, and the institutions.
While Division III institutions cannot offer athletic scholarships, they can and do offer other scholarships and financial aid. Two examples follow:
  • An institution that offers aid to families with incomes below a certain threshold can offer that money to student-athletes. Athletes must not be treated differently than other students with financial need.
  • Institutions that offer leadership or community service scholarships can offer those to student-athletes who have met the criteria.
The bottom line: There’s remarkable value in Division III athletics by any measure.

Weigh the Pros and Cons of Pursuing Athletics in College — Carefully

Collegiate athletics and college admission for athletes are complex topics, filled with rules, choices (both athletic and academic), and financial implications.
As a parent, a professor, and a college president, I believe in the power of athletics.  Some students first find their way on a court or a field. And good coaches can be lifelong mentors. Moreover, many employers like hiring athletes for several reasons: They understand hard work, embrace competition, appreciate failure — and know that “team” has no “I” in it.
Nonetheless, being a collegiate athlete takes immense effort, even for those who have no wish to go pro. It’s important to be as informed as possible early on.
It’s hard to play in college if you don’t understand the game in every sense of the word.

16-0222-KarenGross-bio.jpgKaren Gross has taught and continues to teach across the educational pipeline. This spring, she is teaching at Bennington College in Vermont. She writes, consults, and advises on how to improve student success and has a forthcoming book titled Shoulders to Learn On (2016) on this very topic.
A former college president and senior advisor to the U.S. Department of Education, Gross currently serves as senior counsel to Widmeyer Communications, a Finn Partners Company, and as an affiliate to the Penn Center for MSIs at the University of Pennsylvania Graduate School of Education. She writes for many education outlets, including The Huffington Post, The Washington Post, InsideHigherEd, Unplugged, DiverseEducation, Evollution, CollegeAD, and NAIS.

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