College Recruiting for the Elite Athlete


There is help out there, certainly. The American Junior Golf Association dispenses about $230,000 in need-based aid to around 60 young golfers, about $4,000 each. Other national associations have similar scholarship programs; my son, Dan, for instance, received a full scholarship to a tennis camp at Harvard, though we needed to find a place for him to stay. A former director of a national sports academy told me recently that he often found $1,000 somewhere in the school's funds to help a student whose parents could not afford a particularly important competition.

But the big money, in both association and commercial sponsorship, goes to athletes who have already demonstrated potential, which means their families have already devoted significant resources to the elite sport in question.

Avoiding "buyer's remorse"

Perhaps you earn a middle-class income. Perhaps your other children need your time and support. Perhaps, you think to yourself, this sport is indeed elite, not just athletically but economically as well. Perhaps you find yourself explaining to Jennifer that the college-recruitment process helping to maintain such relentless competition is not worth your taking out a second mortgage or moving the whole family to Florida.

"But it's not fair!" she'll exclaim. "I'm just as good as those kids! I need this level of competition! You're supposed to be supporting me!"

Or perhaps you have made all these sacrifices, and Jennifer's performance seems lackluster. She's distracted by a new social life, or not eating properly. Her high-level coach accepts your checks but expresses doubts about her future.

"I'm spending half my income on you," you hear yourself saying, "and all my free time. Now you'd better grab the attention of a college coach, or the whole thing's a waste!"

There are no easy solutions to the money dilemma. In other countries, elite athletes ¨C many of whom end up with scholarships to American universities ¨C are supported by state funding, a system that has its own drawbacks. In America, the burden falls on non-profit associations and on families.

The only sound advice is this: avoid buyer's remorse. Work with your athletic child to find the best level of support that you can give without regretting the outcome and that he can accept without feeling he has been denied a future in the sport.

3. Division I, II, or III: Which will provide the best fit for your child?

Financial Aid

Colleges and universities that are members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) are classified into three divisions: I, II, and III, with the classification based primarily on whether and how the school awards scholarships to incoming student-athletes.

In theory,

  • Division I: are generally large universities and set both minimum and maximum financial aid award limits for student-athletes.
  • Division II schools have maximum award limits and generally attract local or in-state student-athletes.
  • Division III schools do not award athletic scholarships.

In practice, however, these distinctions don't mean a lot. Many Division III schools find ways to supply merit scholarships to promising student-athletes, while, contrary to popular myth, most awards at Division I schools do not come close to covering tuition, room and board.

Athletics versus academics

What really sets schools in Division I apart from their Division II and III counterparts is the greater emphasis on athletics over academics:

  • Division I (athletics are a priority): Athletes train in their sport throughout the year and compete and travel during at least half the academic year. The athletics department generally offers academic support via study halls and tutors to help students balance their academic and athletic schedules. But student-athletes at Division I institutions can expect the demands of their sport to equal or exceed the demands of academics, and they generally view their athletic participation as their primary or sole extracurricular activity.

  • Division II (community-focused balance of athletics and academics): Athletes at Division II schools are often commuter students or students focused on a vocational degree. Their sports involvement is generally confined to competition against other regional institutions.

  • Division III (academics are the priority). Athletes at Division III schools, often selective liberal arts colleges (e.g. Williams, Amherst, etc.), generally compete in a more limited season. Though the competition may be as stiff as at a Division I school, the athletic department is funded like any other department at the institution and there is no formal academic support system for athletes. Academics have clear priority at Division III institutions.

Finding the right balance

Between 3% and 11% of high-school athletes compete at the college level, so the recruiting process, regardless of whether one is talking about D-I, D-II, or D-III, is already a winnowing process. The important factor, for most elite athletes, should not be the elusive scholarship, which may crop up or disappear regardless of division level. Rather, students and parents should assess optimal size and type of institution, the student's academic interests and preparedness, the student's commitment to his or her sport; and the student's other extracurricular interests. As the recruiting season heats up for high-school juniors and seniors, keeping such priorities in mind can be a huge challenge.

4. Hiring a Consultant


College recruiting is a complex process for the elite athlete, rife with rules, cautions, and the vicissitudes of college recruiters. If your son or daughter is a highly ranked athlete, your mailbox will bulge with enthusiastic letters from coaches all over the country, each promising the moon-along with an iron-clad contract.

At the same time, your teenager is flexing the muscles of independence. Lost as they may be in the maze of college recruiting, they may not want you to hand them the string that will help them find their way out.

One solution is to hire a consultant who will help the student-athlete sort through recruitment offers, initiate and respond to contacts with coaches, prepare a resume of athletic accomplishments, and handle official and unofficial visits to colleges.

Tim Donovan of Donovan Tennis Strategies cautions parents against pushing their athletic children toward highly ranked colleges that may not be the best fit. In many of the families who seek his services, he says, "It's the parents driving the kids. They have this quest for the kid to be a special athlete, for bragging rights."

Donovan himself is happiest "when I can help kids who were under the radar, great student-athletes who didn't have the exposure." Although presenting a student's record is about "enhancing chances" for admission and financial aid, the greatest benefit for the young person working with a strategist may to relieve the pressure from within the family when it comes to college recruiting.


  • Yet another expense: Paying a consultant constitutes yet another expense at a time when the family's budget may already be spread thin.

  • Possible lack of expertise or personal service. With the exception of sport-specific consultants like Donovan, most college-recruiting consultants are spread thin and know less about the sport in question than the athlete and his family.

  • Unrealistic promises. "Bragging rights" apply not only to families, but to consulting services as well, so that athletes and families need to be both careful and assertive about finding the right fit for the individual, regardless of promises, rankings, or other lures.

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