Don’t Pin College Funding Hopes on Athletic Scholarships

My middle daughter is eleven, stands 5-foot-8 and loves the game of basketball. Her dad, who stands nearly 6-foot-7, funded his college education on a basketball scholarship. While we save our pennies for those upcoming tuition bills, I harbor secret fantasies about her winning a full ride to school on a sports scholarship. But a new analysis suggests that’s a fantasy that’s unlikely to be fulfilled — and the prospects are especially dim for female students.

Mark Kantrowitz, founder of the college informational site, just released an analysis of college sports scholarships in the 2007-2008 school year. Just 1.4 percent of students — 1.6 percent of male students and 1 percent of females — received athletic scholarships. Average award: $7,855.

Combined with other institutional grants, athletes received an average of $10,257 — well above the $6,278 average for students who did not get athletic scholarships. However, the extra dough doesn’t play a huge role in minimizing costs, because athletes tend to choose more expensive colleges. The total cost of attendance for recipients of athletic scholarships was $24,335 — $4,560 higher than the $19,775 average for non-recipients, Kantrowitz found.

On the other hand, cumulative debt at graduation is lower for athletic scholarship recipients than non-recipients. Nearly 57 percent of bachelor’s degree recipients who received athletic scholarships in 2007-08 graduated with debt, compared with 65 percent of students who did not receive an athletic scholarship that year, Kantrowitz writes.

The average cumulative debt at graduation was nearly $18,000 for students who received an athletic scholarship, about $5,200 less than the $23,200 average for non-recipients. (Perhaps fans are buying the athletes pizza dinners and beer, thus reducing their propensity to borrow for living expenses.)

Moreover, while gender equity in athletic scholarships has improved, men continue to receive a disproportionate share of athletic scholarships. Among those enrolled in a bachelor’s program, men received 54 percent of athletic scholarships to women’s 43 percent. Enrollment numbers among all students in bachelor’s degree programs are the reverse: 55 percent women to 45 percent men.

Finally, while students who receive athletic scholarships have lower grade point averages than non-recipients (2.88 versus 2.99), they are more likely to finish their degrees. Of students in bachelor’s degree programs who received athletic scholarships in 2003-04, 72.5 percent graduated with a bachelor’s degree by 2009 (i.e., within 6 years). This compares with 63 percent for non-recipients. The graduation rates for men and women were nearly identical — 72.6 percent and 72.5 percent respectively. Perhaps the drive that fuels high performance on the playing field translates to the classroom.

Do you plan to help your children pay for college? Are you saving, borrowing, begging from grandparents, friends and neighbors? Do you expect your child to work and earn some of the tuition costs, commute from home or attend junior college to lower the bills? What’s your plan?

Laura Rowley