The College Athletic Scholarship Myth

Because Jonah loved soccer and tolerates the track team, we have spent a lot of time on the edges of soccer fields and in the track bleachers having polite conversations with random parents. A frightening number of them believe that their kids are going to play for the Mets or, at the very least, get a free ride to a fancy college, because they pitched a no-hitter for the 3rd grade Little League team. Delusional.

I love this article by a pediatric orthopedic surgeon about the intensity of sports training of little kids.

We buy the hype about scholarships to college, but the numbers don’t support the athletic route to money. Despite what your “professional coach” tells you about your child’s athletic prowess, it isn’t possible to tell if your 12-year-old has the right stuff to be a college athlete. Very few scholarships are full-ride packages; most don’t come close to covering the cost of college. But when I tell parents that their kid’s chance of scholarship money is less than 2 percent, they shake their heads in sympathy for the other 98 percent.

I treated two teenage sisters who had career-ending knee injuries in the same year. Fifteen thousand dollars of their father’s annual income had been going to three different elite traveling softball teams. His goal was a college scholarship. Now their knees and chances at athletic scholarships were ruined. But $15,000 a year would have been a great D.I.Y. college fund.


47 thoughts on “The College Athletic Scholarship Myth

  1. My daughter is 8 and just finished her third year of soccer. Last year a teammate’s parents were 100% focused on their daughter getting an eventual soccer scholarship. Yes, a kid who was seven and not that interested in soccer. Yelling at her during games.

    We are reasonably mild-mannered up here and STILL emails go around each season admonishing parents about yelling during practices and games.

    Soccer is hugely popular here for kids – the season is from Sept-Mar and outdoors because of the mild winters. And despite virtually no one getting an eventual scholarship some parents STILL take it far too seriously.

    I’m ALL over team sports like soccer, especially for girls. Teamwork, fitness, fun, friendships outside of school, skill development, delayed gratification (work hard, plateau, get better), etc. But rearranging your family life so that you have a crack at less than 1% chance of a scholarship? Not worth it.

  2. I just get sick seeing places like the soccer training facility somewhat near my house called “star finders”. It’s for young kids- below 14, I think. It distinctly gives the impression of where to go to not have any fun.

    1. Speaking of fun, we got a message from the fencing coach saying that due to philosophical differences, they were letting go an assistant coach. The philosophical differences were that the head coach wants the group to be focused on 1) safety and 2) fun while the assistant coach that was let go was more interested in competition. I’m dying of curiosity as to what set that off.

  3. We were talking about this article this morning, after a weekend of 2 excellent games of 4th grade basketball in which all the glories of team sports were exhibited, the teamwork, effort, skill and athleticism, and pure joy. The team was diverse in every sense (economically, racially, educationally, religiously) and there was no shouting. It was lovely.

    I think though the emphasis on the “free ride scholarship” as the motivation for pushing children to sports in the popular media is not the real motive of most people who are pushing their children in sports (though I can’t speak for other areas, I think I’m now seeing the elite players in my area). Many of them are fully aware that investing 15K/year for ++ years is a bad investment for the 250K or so return. So, it’s easy for most of them to dismiss articles like this one. The people I know are supporting their children in an enthusiasm and assessing the comparative value of the sport in the school admissions game. Usually these kids are pretty smart, too, but pretty smart doesn’t differentiate you from all the other pretty smart kids. But, being a star athlete who is pretty smart can and does make a difference in the admissions game.

    Also, is it really the yellers who are looking for the return on investment? The parents of the star athletes I know don’t yell (though they might whine about refs, coaches, other parents). They don’t yell because their children are usually pretty good and pretty self-motivated. The yellers are the ones with the kids who are good but won’t try hard enough or who try but aren’t quite good enough.

    1. “Also, is it really the yellers who are looking for the return on investment? The parents of the star athletes I know don’t yell (though they might whine about refs, coaches, other parents). They don’t yell because their children are usually pretty good and pretty self-motivated. The yellers are the ones with the kids who are good but won’t try hard enough or who try but aren’t quite good enough.”

      Obviously, we need quantitative research on this very interesting question.

    2. I don’t know about “looking for a return on investment” (I am, thankfully, not closely involved in such things.) But, my father, a retired police officer, used to work security for kids hockey in Boise, Idaho. The security was almost entirely needed for crazed parents throwing fits and looking to start fights, sometimes with kids, sometimes with other parents. It was, frankly, completely nuts.

      (As for myself, I can say that, many years ago, I quit a gymnastics team when it became obvious to me that 1- many of the kids on the team had delusions of being on they olympic team and 2- they were going to make being on the team hell for anyone who didn’t have that as a goal. Admittedly, I was even then obviously going to be too tall and was the worst person on the team, but it was really the sort of atmosphere where wanting to work hard, improve, and be the best you could be was considered way too little. It was something I wanted nothing of.)

      1. Yeah, I’ve seen those parents, and they freak me out. But, I don’t think they’re necessarily the parents of the superstars.

        My kiddo is of average ability but is an outlier in commitment and energy and spirit. We want him to play to have fun, but one of the things he’s coming to realize is that he doesn’t have fun, if he’s playing with kids who don’t try. Just having fun sometimes becomes a code for not really trying. Of course, there’s no reason why one should try if one doesn’t really care (and not everyone should have to play a sport and it doesn’t mean anything about their character if they don’t). But, I like my colleagues to be working hard, too, and he likes his teammates to be working hard too. A delightful characteristic of the basketball team he played with last weekend was that every player trusted every other player to do their part (i.e. they’d pass to the open person with the presumption that the player would do his best with the ball).

        He came home this morning from his first swim practice with a subgroup of the kids who have qualifying times and was happy, the kind of happiness where you realize you were only coping before.

        I’m struggling to balance the fairly low value I place on sports against the fairly high value I place on effort and how one gets both while still keeping it fun. The same problem comes up when we talk about having opt-in AP classes and advanced math. It’d be great if everyone who wanted to try to learn the material could join in, but it seems to me that inevitably some kids are put in the mix for other reasons.

      2. BJ – yes! That should be part of the learning of being on a team – some are stars and some are average. Learning where you fit and respecting everyone else for their hard work. Expecting that level of effort in yourself too.

        It’s a precursor of being in any community. It isn’t a community if people are all the same.

  4. my husband had a full ride soccer scholarship. his parents were barely involved in his soccer life, they carpooled and signed him up for travel teams and didn’t go to many games. He was the one who wanted to play, because he was better than everyone else. I will say though, he was identified as a ringer at 11 and played in Junior European championships, so identifying young isn’t unusual. He went to a D1 state school, FOR FREE! He laughs at people who think their terribly average soccer kids (he coaches my kids U9 team) are ever even going to be HS team worthy. Needles in a haystack…He’s coached 2 scholarship kids in the 8 years he coached.

  5. We did the math for swim scholarships. Swimming with the hyper-intensive swimming programs which meet year-round (and have names like “The Machine”) costs around four thousand dollars a year and most kids starting doing it at age eight if not earlier. They also tend to take private swim lessons at twenty five dollars for half an hour.
    It seems risky to “invest” fifty thousand dollars in hopes of getting a scholarship. Might be better off just saving the money (says the lady who probably poured thirty thousand dollars into music lessons/camps, etc. for a kid who ended up with a thirty-six thousand dollar scholarship).

    1. But you did it for the music, presumably, and not for the investment in scholarships. I think that’s the important thing with most kids activities, not to get hung up on the future, but to concentrate on what the child gets out of the activity now. The future is too unpredictable, both in how the child’s talent will develop with respect to others (not even including the risk of injury) but in how that talent will be valued.

      1. Another aspect that speaks to one of Artemisia’s points down below is whether or not they can/will be doing this activity as an adult. Not saying that this is the only factor or the most important one, but not many adults are doing handsprings or triple lutzes while many are still swimming, playing recreational ice hockey/soccer or playing musical instruments.

    2. (Replying to Sandra here)

      but not many adults are doing handsprings or triple lutzes while many are still swimming, playing recreational ice hockey/soccer or playing musical instruments.

      There is actually quite a lot of places to do “adult gymnastics”. I’ve done some, and my wife does even more. I did do gymnastics when I was a kid, and she did rhythmic gymnastics as a kid in the Soviet Union, but both of us have really enjoyed doing some gymnastics again as adults- she learned handsprings for the first time. And, I took figure skating lessons for the first time this last winter. I can’t do a triple lutze, or even a single one, it’s true, but that doesn’t mean I can’t get a lot of enjoyment out of it. There were several adults at the rink who either were still doing things from their youth or who had started as adults, some of whom were really very good. We also started white water kayaking this year, and have really gotten in to it. We (especially I) will never be entering competitions in that, and might never make it up to regularly running class IV, let along V, rapids, but it’s been really fun. Adults should not think they can’t do this stuff! All they need to do is get off the couch.

      1. I “knew” there’d be someone who did adult gymnastics and figure skating. 🙂

        Now kayaking is excellent – and something you can do well into your 40’s, 50’s and beyond. Same with outrigger canoeing.

      2. And tennis and squash and racquetball, for those who like some competition against others in their sports.

      3. We don’t have convenient ice skating hereabouts, but my husband got rollerblades for Christmas a few years back, and whenever the big kids go to the rollerskating rink, he skates laps like a maniac. Both my big kids do, too, and we often do birthday parties at one of the rinks.

        My grandma rollerskated well into adulthood.

  6. My father was one of those rare ones who parlayed his athletic abilities (All-American football player) to a scholarship at his desired university. Even that couldn’t get him too far. It was his top-of-the-class academic skills that kept him going once his shoulder was injured so badly he had to stop playing. Nowadays in Canada, we’re reading stories about youngsters destroying their bodies attempting the butterfly defense as a hockey goalie or juicing up to build bulk for all sorts of sports. It’s great to support a kid in real achievement but few parents and few junior-level coaches have the eyes for talent and the understanding of the physical risks involved. . . .

  7. Even if you get the full ride brass ring, they want all your time for practice and you maybe graduate, maybe not, and if so with a low-octane degree. Steve Sailer has a swell story: “…It was like when I was at Rice in the 1970s, and the basketball coaching staff was always scowling about how the 6′-11″ backup center was just exploiting them to get a Rice engineering degree, always sneaking off to the library to work on differential equations…”

  8. Athletic scholarships aren’t the only benefit, especially if the child is a good student. D3 schools also slot athletes, and if your child can get into a fancy private D3 school, need-based funding means if they’re middle class they’ll a significant scholarship or even a free ride (many elite private schools give free rides to families earning less than 70-100k a year). Being a good-but-not-great athlete may get your student into UChicago, or Amherst, or Vassar, etc. Since the school is D3 and no one is going to try for a professional career in the sport, the sports/life balance is usually pretty reasonable.

    So yes, if you have a kid who’s both a good student and a good athlete, it might make sense to cultivate athletic skills above other ones even if you know they’re not ever going to be good enough to become professional or even be a good D1 athlete.

    1. This is why sports gets such investment in our neck of the woods. That’s why they don’t listen when orthopedists tell them not to ruin their kids knees for the investment in the scholarship. They’re investing in a different game.

      Part of the blame goes to the inability (or unwillingness) of schools to rank students in academics with the gradation available for sports — the same issue as students at Ivy’s investing heavily in extracurricular (as reported by the tiger-kid) because everyone gets the same grades in their classes.

  9. My ex was a professional soccer player for about 5 years in Italy (injury ended his career) before we ever met. He was never impressed with the play of kids in the US. Neither of our kids excelled at soccer, but our son got a (large) scholarship for the pistol team and our daughter a (smaller) one for track in distance running. And of course, they were both very good academically.

    Like B.I, I think the scholarships for the good but not spectacular athletes are more likely for either the less glamorous sports or at private D3s. I know several people who got scholarships to SLACs for sports (soccer) even though those schools are not exactly competitive for sports.

  10. That explains a lot BJ. Our kid went to an accepted student’s day for kids who had been offered merit scholarships and a lot of the kids also had appointments with coaches that day. Now I understand why that was.

  11. I’ve heard that colleges reserve slots for athletes. The more thoughtful players will hesitate before “going D1,” especially if their families aren’t relying on athletic scholarships to pay tuition.

    It’s also possible to find bad coaches, (as in predatory), especially in sports outside of school. The Wall Street Journal had a piece some years back about families “investing” in their children’s budding sports careers. (wince, for the lost childhoods.)

    On the other hand, I don’t think parents of young children really have athletic scholarships in mind. It seems to be stated more often in jest than in earnest. They want to give their children happy, healthy high school years.

    Interesting thread, especially the comments:

    In short, as youth sports become more intense, with competition to “be the best,” kids are checking out. Overall participation is dropping. It’s not fun. (The kids have more sense than the adults.)

    My children happily participated in rec league soccer, until other interests caught their fancy. Even then, though, I was hearing the theory that if your child didn’t play on travel teams, he/she wouldn’t be able to play on the high school teams.

    And as a last scatterbrained point, there’s also the parent social part of it. Soccer mom, lacrosse mom, hockey dad, etc. I never hear of “International Math Olympiad mom,” or “Robotics dad,” or “Scrabble mom.” It doesn’t have the same ring.

    1. There is such a thing as a Destination Imagination parent and theater parents and band parents. I think to be a public parent of your child’s activities (I’m guessing there are scrabble parents and spelling bee parents, but you don’t being part of a club), there has to be a sideline (to watch the children play, perform). Traveling together is a big deal, too. When parents have to travel to Walla Walla together, you bond.

      We’re seeing the rec league to serious play transition occurring here around 4-5th grade. Which, in my mind, is too early. The transition means more money spent, more time spent, more hours driven, more commitment, higher levels of required skill. I don’t think the kids should have to make that decision, between playing or not at 10.

      1. Agreed – the girl will have to tryout for soccer in two years to play on one of a gold/silver/bronze soccer team AND commit to no other extra curriculars. What if you are average and love soccer? What if soccer interests you when you are 11? You are out of luck.

  12. … AND commit to no other extra curriculars. And there’s the rub. That’s a bridge too far, in my opinion.

    The superstar athletes can get away with a list of extracurriculars with one entry. For everyone else, it’s madness. Deresiewicz noted in the recent New Republic article: Kids who had five or six items on their list of extracurriculars—the “brag”—were already in trouble, because that wasn’t nearly enough.

    For most kids, that’s a terrible gamble. So very, very few eleven year olds will play college sports. I’ve found figures online which estimate 6% of high school players will play in college. Many kids don’t make the high school teams, so the percentage is much lower for all 11 year olds. Even highly athletic kids can injure themselves while in high school. Then they lose the recruited athlete’s edge, have no other extracurriculars to fall back on, and not enough time to build any depth in other areas.

  13. “But when I tell parents that their kid’s chance of scholarship money is less than 2 percent, they shake their heads in sympathy for the other 98 percent.”

    I had to see that again. I laughed and laughed. So funny, so true.

    My experience (and I’m sure this is somewhat town/region specific) supports Sandra upthread – it was a bunch of now-successful formerly-nerdy dads reliving their childhoods such that their sons would get medals instead of noogies and swirlies. There was yelling, private coaching, pressure to group the “best” kids on certain teams, travel teams and invitation-only teams and elite teams often sponsored by specific social groups who didn’t think the league was doing enough for their kids. There were certainly parents committed to fantasies about their kids’ college sports (and just plain old college) prospects. And it was interesting to see how many of those grade-school super-athletes played in high school, forget college. (Answer: not many) (Same reality check with the Ivy admissions). Our generation can be completely deluded about our kids, is what.

    It’s just sad what it does to the kids. They get so tired of the sport, even if they don’t get injured.

    That said, we are paying public school-level tuition for my son (former non-competitive rec-league athlete) to go to a good D3 $60k a year school, because he gets a heap of merit aid, thanks to his athletic abilities in a sport he didn’t try until 8th grade. I’ve seen quite a few decent athletes that were my kids’ peers getting more money at schools they would have gotten into regardless.

    But – they generally weren’t the kids whose parents were going crazy pushing them back in grade school.

    1. That’s great that he had the chance to take part while starting at 13 in eighth grade. By then many programs have weeded out the ones who aren’t excellent AND haven’t been taking part since age 5 or 6.

      1. Speaking of late starts, our now 12-year-old started guitar this summer, her first private music lessons ever. She’s doing surprisingly well, although the whole practice thing is controversial. (I tell her to just pick up the guitar and do something with it for 10 minutes—as I never had music lessons as a child, I certainly can’t tell the difference.)

        You guys (cranberry especially) had been very encouraging about it a year or so ago. At the time, I was sure that “serious music” has to start around 4, so we’d definitely missed the boat. Come to find out, the boat had not left after all.

    2. “My experience (and I’m sure this is somewhat town/region specific) supports Sandra upthread – it was a bunch of now-successful formerly-nerdy dads reliving their childhoods such that their sons would get medals instead of noogies and swirlies.”

      Have these smart guys never heard of Messrs. Watson and Crick?

  14. AmyP – music IS easier dexterity-wise when started young but 12 is certainly far from too late. I started at 11 and ended up as a performance major in university.

    I’m a HUGE fan of music-making. Just think – a 100 years ago many more people could play instruments and would gather together in the parlor to play for fun. Much more recently it’s become the domain of the “expert” unfortunately.

    1. Getting away from the idea that only experts could play music was an important part of the punk movement. The Ramones were never very good technically, but they sure were fun.

    2. Oh, but if you know where to look, there are tons of community bands and orchestras and choruses. I couldn’t carry a tune if you put handles on it, but my musical friends are out playing/singing several times a month.

  15. In my circle, I see kids overspecializing in music, chess, etc. just as much as sports. A friend of the family has a kid in the Chicago Children’s Orchestra – doesn’t that sound relaxed? They devote many of their weekends and much of their discretionary income to the traveling and rehearsals involved. Which is interesting because there is absolutely no expectation of scholarship. She did however get into Northside College Prep, the most exclusive selective enrollment high school in Chicago, and our analog to getting accepted at an Ivy.

    Is this just about expanding demographics, and a tougher economy? More kids, more people, more anxiety about how kids are going to compete economically. Suddenly encouraging your kid to compete early, and having them visibly excel early, seems like a great idea. And do we know for sure that’s not the case? Today’s college grads actually *do* have to compete for resources much more than I did upon college graduation. Are the kids who participate in these programs better prepared for the harsh reality they face today? Yes, parents need to keep an eye out for orthopedic injury. But maybe my reaction to this style of childhood is because it’s different from what I had.

    1. Yes, I think it is the increasing anxiety combined with the increased knowledge of how to find resources and activities.

      When I was a kid, we signed up for what was available. Now, with the help of the internet, I can find a vast array of resources, from welding classes to parkour to hockey (hockey! I am not in Canada; it is incredibly exotic. Spouse bought a hockey stick for kiddo, and the clerk laughed at him, because he was looking at the flat sticks. Spouse bought skates, and didn’t know that they needed to be sharpened, or what that meant. But, with the help of the internet, we can figure those things out). There’s the anxiety about excelling, but there’s also the opportunity, to give your children a chance to pursue their passions. One of the things my mom feels guilty about is not knowing how to get me ballet lessons when I said I wanted them (mind you, I was just excited by pretty tutus, so it is not something she should feel guilty about). But now, finding out those things is easy, so we try to provide the opportunities.

      And, there have always been serious musicians — it’s always been the epitome of the early learning, prodigy theories.

      The early athletic investment seems a bit new to me, ’cause people used to do it in schools, and there was less belief that early investment was necessary, since so much seemed to depend on physical characteristics.

    2. I remember reading an article (but don’t remember where of course) that posited the increase in childhood competition is rooted in the increase in the population applying to college, without any corresponding increase to the number of places in top colleges. In the past, X% of the population got into the Ivies and similar; now it’s a X/3. They compared the US to Canada, where admission rates have stayed relatively stable and parents weren’t going bonkers.

      It fits my observation – the parents who went to Ivies have a certain amount of angst that their kids won’t get in due to increased competition and many parents who didn’t go to Ivies think they could have, if only they’d had the advantages they have given their kids, so they could get in.

  16. Actually the kids who overspecialize in music also end up with weird injuries — tendinitis, carpal tunnel, a permanent ‘violin hickey’ that will likely require surgery. I know that after years of driving people to practices, I am almost slap happy at the thought of the time I will have when we hit the empty nest. We ended up living closer in to our town because of the all the driving and are really looking forward to moving to a smaller house in the country once the driving is finally done.

    As we face the empty nest, I am becoming much more cognizant of all we gave up — all the families that don’t go to visit extended family for Thanksgiving because of the tournament or concert the next day and the fact that all the travel money got spent on extracurriculars and not visiting family. We feel badly that our kids don’t really know their cousins, mostly because every weekend was booked for as long as we can remember — everybody else on my husband’s side lives in the same city and we live hundreds of miles away and it just wasn’t possible to build those close relationships while doing parenting American style. I never get to see my sister because she lives three hundred miles away and all four of her kids are always playing baseball.

    1. We have a similar situation with a childhood friend of my husband’s. They have four daughters and our girl gets on well with all of them. The times we do get together (they live a few hours away by car) it has been a blast. But all four are into dance and every weekend is taken up by practices and competitions.

    2. Yes about the injuries. Now and then, one bumps into people who had music career-ending injuries and had to unexpectedly change careers.

  17. I know many sports involve cultivating skills from an early age, but I know at least with running, few people start before high school, and being elite is truly a combo of genes + willingness to sweat. If you have the natural aptitude to be fast and you’re willing to run to the point of throwing up on a regular basis, you can be an elite athlete even if you take it up in your 20s or 30s. I watched some PBS documentary a billion years ago about a top Kenyan runner who started running because he was so obese his doctors told him he would die within 5 years. After about 2 years of running, he had dropped 100+ lbs, could run a sub 4 min mile, and was working the marathon circuit. By contrast, after 2 years of running, I was a lot better than where I was before I started and better than most of my classmates, but light years away from any elite level.

    My guess is music is similar. If you’re really talented, starting at 12 or 15 is not too late. If you’re not all that talented, starting at 5 isn’t going to turn you into a world famous musician. There are probably people with enough talent and a good enough work ethic that starting at 5 and practicing 8 hours a day will make them elite, but I wouldn’t sweat that you’ve deprived your child of their secret talent if that wasn’t the case. I get the sense from the few biographies I’ve read of elite athletes that if you’re kid has enough skill, minor exposure is enough to suss it out. If not, then expensive summer camps might make them marginally better but isn’t going to turn them into Michael Phelps.

    1. Practice v innate talent was the subject of a recent meta analysis recently:

      Good article — but doesn’t completely convince me that talent matters more than practice. I think that BI’s characterization of there being a distribution is correct, and that one of the changes in the world today is that we have access to the resources (and motivation) to try to train the good to try to reach for the elite. In the olden days, it was only a select group of people who had knowledge and money to access the training resources, so the elite were a combination of the superlatively talented and the wealthy or connected. Now, many have the ability to access the knowledge and the incentive to invest the money.

      I think of it being a bit like height. Height distribution was influenced by poor nutrition, so in the olden days, the taller people were those with access to resources, potentially even those who were genetically likely to be shorter. Eventually nutrition has improved in some countries to the point that genetics is the strongest contributor. That may happen eventually with “talent”, but as long as some people have resources to leverage their good kids to the elite, people will try to use that to differentiate themselves.

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