The reality is that most college athletes do not have athletic scholarships. College athletic scholarships are the exception rather than the rule. Most people have it the other way around, and it's not hard to understand why. After all, how often do we watch some televised college sports event where the commentators talk about how some player started off playing for the team without any scholarship but earned one because of his outstanding performance on the playing field? It makes it sound like everyone else has a scholarship, right?
Nope. This may be true in the money sports we see on TV, but the reality is that approximately two-thirds of college athletes do not have athletic scholarships. Making the college team is not the same thing as receiving a scholarship for three simple reasons.
1. DIII schools don’t offer athletic scholarships
The largest division in the NCAA, Division III, does not offer athletic scholarships. Over a third of all athletes play at the DIII level, which is a major reason why two-thirds of all athletes don't have athletic scholarships. This doesn't mean that DIII athletes don't have any scholarships; they just don't have athletic ones.
2. Most sports are equivalency sports
There are two types of sports in the NCAA: equivalency sports and head count sports. Head count sports offer full scholarships to players, while equivalency sports are allowed to divide one scholarship among multiple players. For example, one player may receive a 50% scholarship while two others get 25% each. There are only six head count sports in the NCAA: football, men's and women's basketball, women's tennis, women's gymnastics, and women's volleyball. All other sports are equivalency sports.
You can see a list of college sports and the number of scholarships allowed here. Given that in most sports, teams carry rosters two to three times the number of allowed scholarships, it is very unlikely to get a full-ride scholarship in an equivalency sport.
3. Scholarships are not fully funded
The NCAA and NAIA set maximum limits on the number of scholarships colleges can offer. They do not require the schools to fully fund them. This isn't something frequently talked about but something prospects will encounter as they start talking to coaches. In this article, Dave Galehouse discusses the problem of requiring college baseball coaches to provide a minimum of a 25% scholarship, given that they may only have three of their allowed 11.7 scholarships funded. We're talking DI schools here.
There's nothing wrong with pursuing sports in college. For many students, collegiate athletics offers structure, challenge, and socialization while doing something they love. They don't want to quit playing, and that’s great. But players should be realistic about the chances of their sport actually paying the tuition bill.