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Parents who imagine their pee-wee soccer or basketball athlete landing a big-time athletic scholarship need to take a knee first and understand some facts about the system. That’s the message from officials at the Arkansas Activities Association and area university athletic departments. 

“Only 3 percent of all the high school kids out there are going to play at the next level and that’s Division I, Division II and Division III, which is nonscholarship. There’s 97 percent that are going to be finished when high school is over,” said Lance Taylor, executive director of the AAA. “I think a lot of people, students and parents, lose sight of that.”

Last year, Taylor and Bob Gardner, then-executive director of the National Federation of State High School Associations, penned an editorial warning parents to take a realistic view of landing an athletic scholarship. In it, they cited NCAA statistics reporting the average Division I athletic scholarship is worth only $10,400, compared to average in-state public institution cost of more than $25,000 and twice that for private institutions. 

Taylor said many parents who don’t understand these facts of life end up unnecessarily pushing their kids through year-round participation and traveling leagues, to say nothing of employing an expensive strategy that’s doomed to fail.

“Parents likely will spend more money for club sports than they ever regain through college athletic scholarships,” Taylor and Gardner wrote. 

Natalie Shock, associate athletic director with the University of Central Arkansas in Conway said the biggest misconception parents have about athletic scholarships is the near-myth of the full ride. The reality is, scholarship dollars simply don’t exist to fund every roster spot 100 percent and so most athletes get a sliver of what it takes to attend school. 

“Even though softball, for example, has 12 scholarships, we may have anywhere from 24 to 26 [players] from year to year on aid,” she said. “So you can do the math there. Very few are on a full ride.”

Molly Caster, UA Little Rock senior woman administrator for athletics and a former scholarship athlete, said most families hamstring their collegiate strategy by not having a clear idea of the athlete’s end game. 

“Just be realistic with your goals and priorities,” she said. “Do you want to play Division I because you want to play the best? OK, then maybe you’re going to look at less of a scholarship for athletics that way.”

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“Is an athletic scholarship the means for you to pay for school? Then even in the Division I world, maybe you’re going to aim for a mid-major if you’re not going to be an elite student-athlete. Are you going somewhere because you want to play or are you going there because they gave you the most money? That’s all hard for many students to understand.”

Both Shock and Caster said the most damaging element of over-emphasizing athletics in the name of college money is that endless games and practices often come at the expense of academics. This is not only detrimental to the student’s overall development, it’s a backward strategy when it comes to college aid.

“Academics in high school are super important,” Caster said. “Ninth grade is when it starts to matter because colleges are going to look at that GPA and hopefully give you a scholarship for your academics. And on top of that, coaches are going to look for a strong student. The easier you are on the coach, the more likely you are to be recruited.”

“So many coaches go after the academic kids that can also play, because if you can get an academic kid, they’re going to get academic money that can be combined with your athletic money,” Shock said. “We’ve got some track students right now that are on a full ride academically and all we’re doing is giving them books. Our coaches love those people because that gives them more money to go after somebody else.”

Lance Taylor is quick to point out the long odds of paying in college are not an indictment of high school participation. To the contrary, studies continue to show that students who are involved in extracurricular activities, including sports, reap a number of academic and social benefits. The key, he said, is to maintain priorities.

“It’s about their academics first, but there are great life skills that you learn from being in extracurricular activities no matter what it is,” he said. “That’s really the point. You want to learn from both of those. You want to have great grades, but you also want to learn all those things that you can use when you’re through playing.”


Participation Pays in Multiple Areas

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The Arkansas Activities Association, the Arkansas Department of Education and the University of Arkansas surveyed the 2018 high school graduating class statewide to determine the effect of extracurricular activities, including sports, on various measurements. 

Just under half (46 percent) of the graduating class participated in some type of AAA-sanctioned activity. Roughly the same percentage of girls participated as boys (47 percent versus 46 percent), but ethnic disparities exist. More white members of the class participated (52 percent) than black (36 percent) or Hispanic (32 percent).

Participation in AAA activities showed a positive impact in the following areas:

  • Attendance:  AAA participants attended 95 percent of the school days during senior year, while non-AAA students attended 92 percent

  • ACT scores:  AAA participants scored higher on their 11th grade ACT earning a 19.95 composite score compared to non-AAA students’ 17.98 composite score

  • GPA:  AAA participants averaged a 3.32 GPA senior year, compared to non-AAA students’ 2.97 GPA

  • Discipline: AAA participants were involved in fewer disciplinary incidents (31.54 disciplinary actions/100 students) versus their nonparticipating peers (38.34 disciplinary actions/100 students)

  • Graduation rates: AAA participants graduated at a rate of 99 percent compared to non-AAA students at 89 percent


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Tips From the Next Level

Natalie Shock, UCA, offers the following for athletes and parents:

KNOW YOUR OPTIONS—If college money is your goal, don’t just focus on Division 1. Athletic money exists in other collegiate divisions, including junior colleges, which have no limits on what they can give.

EMBRACE REALITY—There’s a rule of thumb among coaches: Athletes are typically one level below what recruiting sources say and two levels below what parents think. Assess your ability honestly and go from there.

UNDERSTAND TRADE-OFFS—There’s no easy path to the next level. Golf or tennis might have fewer athletes competing for scholarships, but there’s generally less money to be had there, too. 

Molly Castner, UA Little Rock, offers the following for athletes and parents:

BROADEN YOUR PARTICIPATION—Some athletes become hyper-focused on one sport when participating in more than one can head off burnout and provide a fallback scholarship option.

START EARLY—Athletes need to get on colleges’ radar early. Sending inquiries in ninth grade is standard, sending out clips in junior high is usually overkill and waiting until senior year is death.

HIT THE BOOKS—Many coaches see academic achievers as more coachable and generally less trouble. Given the choice between two students of equal athletic ability, great grades are often the clincher.