8 minute read

College Athletics

Athletic Scholarships

The benefits of receiving an athletic scholarship from a university or college have evolved significantly since the origins of athletic grants-in-aid. National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) guidelines provide member institutions with the autonomy to offer athletic scholarships to prospective student-athletes based on their athletic and academic abilities. The NCAA has minimum academic guidelines that categorize students as certified for participation as "qualifiers." Two other categories limit participation and financial assistance–"partial qualifiers" and "nonqualifiers." In an effort to create a competitively equitable financial context, the NCAA establishes specific limits as to the total number of grantsin-aid institutions are allowed to provide to prospective student-athletes. In addition to receiving financial aid, qualifiers receiving an athletic scholarship are certified through the NCAA to have access to numerous resources such as scholarships and academic support through both NCAA member institutions and the NCAA itself. Certification is required by an NCAA-approved certification agency that reviews coursework completed by high school prospects. The agency approves core units earned to ensure students meet NCAA minimum performance guidelines for qualification to participate in athletic competition.

Financial Support

Institutional financial aid is administered by each member institution and begins with "the cost of attendance (which is) an amount calculated by an institutional financial aid office, using federal regulations, that includes the total cost of tuition and fees, room and board, books and supplies, transportation, and other expenses related to attendance at the institution" (NCAA, p. 176). The NCAA categorizes sports into two areas of financial aid: head-count sports and equivalency sports. Head-count sports are those in which each student who receives financial aid is provided with the actual cost of attendance as determined by the institution. Equivalency sports allow coaches to allocate different combinations of financial aid in various forms such as tuition, books, fees, housing costs, or meals. In addition to financial assistance provided by an athletic scholarship, the NCAA has alternative means of financial assistance accessible by student athletes in the form of its Special Assistance Fund. This fund ranges from providing expenses for family emergencies to a clothing allowance for need-based students. Student athletes receiving athletic aid are also allowed to work during academic semesters, earning up to a specified amount of money, and to work out-side the normal academic calendar (summers and vacations).


An athletic scholarship provides the means for students who compete athletically to attend an institution of higher education and ultimately earn a degree. The value of this education varies greatly, from the approximately $37,000 annual cost of attendance at private universities (in 2001) to less expensive tuition expenses at public institutions. The inherent value of a formal education in a postsecondary institution has been debated relative to the revenues generated by major collegiate sports and the ever-increasing salaries of head coaches. When viewed as a preparatory system for aspiring professional athletes, student athletes can be perceived as semiprofessionals who receive an athletic education of not insignificant value from skilled coaches. Additionally, if higher education sustains a pragmatic and philosophical justification for intercollegiate athletics as an inherently educational endeavor, then the value of the curriculum, both academic and athletic, provides satisfactory compensation for participation. Participation in a sport should be approached by the university as inherently developmental: the values acquired through engaging in athletic activities should be consistent with values learned in the academic curriculum and should primarily be aimed at maximizing the development of students. Thus, participation in athletics is itself the reward, as people grow through the experience.

Academic Support

Admissions advantages for student athletes have increased significantly over time. With the evolving weight given to athletic ability in the admissions process, institutions have been increasing their resources for supporting at-risk students. Most member institutions now provide an academic support center that focuses on the retention of student athletes through academic eligibility guidelines established by member institutions and the NCAA. Academic counselors, typically employed by the department of athletics, serve as guides to the academic curriculum for student athletes, while also assisting students in time management, class registration, tutorial sessions, satisfactory progress requirements, and graduate school opportunities. In many ways, these counselors mentor student athletes in ways in which coaches are unable to because they have a weaker power relationship with student athletes. Academic counselors do not determine student athletes' playing time, and thus, as guardians of student-athlete retention via academic eligibility, they often develop stronger relationships with students than faculty and can influence their academic decisions.

Academic counselors will typically establish a comprehensive system of monitoring for freshmen. Daily class checks and accountability for assignments make up much of the academic center's function. Once student athletes demonstrate that they have adapted to the curriculum, counselors will wean the students off their structure and allow more independence in terms of class preparation and registration.

CHAMPS/Life Skills

The NCAA, in an effort to encourage a holistic approach to educating student athletes, developed the CHAMPS/Life Skills program in conjunction with the National Association of Collegiate Directors of Athletics. This program, adapted by most members of the NCAA, attempts to maximize the total development of student athletes through engagement in career development, the academic curriculum, community service, counseling, leadership development, diversity training, and athletic development. This program utilizes campus resources while incorporating the unique challenges of intercollegiate athletics. Ultimately, the goal is to develop student athletes in every facet of their higher education experience. Perhaps the most utilized aspect of the Life Skills format is career development. Working with the university career center, most student athletes prepare for interviews and career fairs by capitalizing on career counselors and software programs made available to them through the program. Some institutions circulate booklets to alumni which contain senior student-athlete resumes in an effort to place them in productive and satisfying positions of employment.

Residential Affairs

An athletic scholarship for head-count sports allows the institution to cover the cost of residence during the student athletes' years of eligibility. Residential requirements vary significantly throughout higher education and range from mandatory dormitory requirements to off-campus housing subsidies. Each institution has a philosophical approach to residential education that ranges from significant emphasis (mandatory residency requirements) to commuter campuses. In the early 1980s, the NCAA eliminated athletic dormitories that were exclusively used by student athletes. The result is a more integrated campus community in terms of student athletes and their peers.


An athletic scholarship provides student athletes with access to those who are experts in developing students in their sport-specific curriculum: namely, coaches. When viewed as educators, coaches utilize a diverse educational entity (athletics) to maximize the development of students. The athletic curriculum should not only facilitate improved athletic skill, but should encompass values such as leadership, discipline, competitiveness, and other holistic qualities that serve students outside the athletic domain. A significant component necessary to maximizing the development of student athletes is success. Without success, student athletes do not have the opportunity to work together toward a shared vision and actually experience the attainment of that vision. In athletics, success is narrowly defined: winning. Thus, winning is an essential part of the athletic curriculum.

As educators, coaches need to develop students not only in the skills of their specific sport, but must also utilize sport development to facilitate holistic growth in their students. Very few aspects of the academic curriculum introduce public competition and scrutiny in a way that invites adversity. Experiencing the dynamics of the athletic curriculum, including the intense competition within a narrow definition of success while facing scrutiny through various media outlets (talk radio, chat lines, newspapers, electronic media) offers a unique experience with the potential of elevating the student athletes' experiences in ways the academic curriculum cannot usually replicate. Thus, as creators of the athletic curriculum within higher education, coaches have a responsibility to their student athletes to facilitate their development.

Dining Services

Perhaps the greatest difference between students and student athletes is in their respective nutritional needs. Some athletes expend great quantities of calories, and therefore require replacement fluids for hydration and calories for physical development. Student athletes in sports where additional body weight presents a competitive disadvantage (gymnastics, cross country) are often placed in a situation where students predisposed to eating disorders struggle with their physical maturation and caloric expenditures. The NCAA allows each institution to provide, as part of an athletic scholarship, sufficient funds to cover three meals each day including one meal served by the athletic department training table to student-athletes receiving aid.

Sports Medicine

Student athletes participating on intercollegiate teams are entitled to institutionally provided medical resources. Typical of sports medicine and athletic training departments are team doctors and certified athletic trainers. The range of available resources extends from surgery to taping ankles. The nature of the sports medicine focus is injury prevention and rehabilitation.

Other Benefits

In addition to the previously mentioned provisions of athletic scholarships, student athletes receive equipment for competition and practice, coaches who specialize in strength development and cardiovascular conditioning, athletic department staff who market teams and individuals, and media relations staff who work with local, national, and sometimes international media. In addition, students may earn various achievement awards presented by their institution, conference, or the NCAA. Finally, the implicit value of team travel and experiencing the cultures of different institutions and regions provides student athletes with opportunities to grow socially as well as intellectually and athletically.


BRADLEY, BILL. 1989. The Role of Athletics in College Life: Hearings Before the Subcommittee on Postsecondary Education of the Committee on Education and Labor, House of Representatives, One Hundred First Congress, First Session. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.

DYSON, ERIC. M. 1994. "Be Like Mike: Michael Jordan and the Pedagogy of Desire." In Between Borders: Pedagogy and the Politics of Cultural Studies, eds. Henry A. Giroux and Peter McLaren. New York: Routledge.

GERDY, JOHN R. 1994. "How Televised Sports Can Further the Goals of Higher Education." Chronical of Higher Education 12 (7):A52.

GERDY, JOHN R. 1997. The Successful College Athletic Program: The New Standard. Phoenix, AZ: Oryx Press.

GERDY, JOHN R. 2000. Sports in School: The Future of an Institution. New York: Teachers College Press.

LEDERMAN, DAVID. 1990. "Students Who Competed in College Sports Fare Better in Job Market than Those Who Didn't, Report Says." Chronicle of Higher Education 37:A47–48.

LEDERMAN, DAVID. 1998. "Players Spend More Time on Sports than on Studies." Chronicle of Higher Education 34:A33–34.

NATIONAL COLLEGIATE ATHLETIC ASSOCIATION. 2000. 2001 NCAA Division I Manual. Indianapolis, IN: National Collegiate Athletic Association.

SHULMAN, JAMES L., and BOWEN, WILLIAM G. 2001. The Game of Life: College Sports and Educational Values. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.


Additional topics

Education Encyclopedia - StateUniversity.comEducation Encyclopedia: Classroom Management - Creating a Learning Environment to Association for Science Education (ASE)College Athletics - History Of Athletics In U.s. Colleges And Universities, Academic Support Systems For Athletes - THE ROLE AND SCOPE OF INTERCOLLEGIATE ATHLETICS IN U.S. COLLEGES AND UNIVERSITIES