Full-Ride vs. Partial-Ride Athletic Scholarships

Written by: Kristyn Pilgrim
Updated: 8/25/20

Charging down a football field, sailing up to a basketball hoop, trading forehand shots on a tennis court — many kids dream of athletic glory, breaking records, and earning untold amounts of cash and fame.

Parents, too, have dreams as they drive their children to early morning practices or park themselves in a motel for one of their kids’ weekend tournaments. They dream that their sacrifice combined with the young person’s talent will pay off at college: annual costs of school picked up entirely by a full-ride scholarship or substantially with a partial ride.

Both kinds of dreams may need to be tempered, as sneakers hit ground against the equally determined competition, and the realities of athletic scholarships require more financial planning than originally hoped.

Many sports live and die by the stats, and the game of getting athletic scholarships is no different. Only around 1% to 2% of undergraduate students in bachelor’s degree programs can snag athletic scholarships.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association says that more than 150,000 student-athletes get about $2.7 billion in athletic scholarships each year, and the average amount received per student-athlete is $18,000.

A 2015–2016 National Postsecondary Student Aid study claims that only 0.2% of students got $25,000 or more in scholarships. There is a total of $6.1 billion in scholarships awarded to 1.58 million recipients. If the data is limited to students who are enrolled in bachelor’s degree programs, each recipient receives about $4,202.

In either case, the athletic scholarship amount for most families does not cover the entire ride at a college, where the average tuition and fees at public schools for out-of-state students are more than $21,000, and the average cost exceeds $35,000 for private schools. 

Who Gets Full-Ride Scholarships? 

The dream is to get a full-ride scholarship that covers everything, including:

  • Tuition and fees
  • Books
  • Room and board
  • Supplies
  • Sometimes, even living expenses

However, only a very few athletes qualify for this kind of benefit. Not only do they have to be exceptionally gifted in sports, but also they need to be exceptionally gifted in the right sports. Full-ride scholarships are only given to exceptional student-athletes playing “head count” sports (sports that bring revenue into the schools). The six college head count sports are:

  • Football
  • Men’s basketball
  • Women’s basketball
  • Women’s gymnastics
  • Tennis
  • Volleyball

And the “full ride” may not be a full ride for all four years of a bachelor’s education. While some Division I schools may provide multiyear scholarships, they usually must be renewed each new academic year.

Athletic scholarships can be yanked from students if:

  • They get injured.
  • Coaches decide not to renew the scholarships.
  • They are not eligible because of poor academic performance.
  • They commit fraud or engage in misconduct.
  •  They are not in good standing with the school and for other reasons.

Student-athletes should also keep in mind that having a verbal agreement with a scout or coach saying they will get a scholarship or a place on the team is not legally binding. They need to get the offer in writing.

It is also possible to get full-ride scholarships for non-head count sports, but they might require:

  • Multiple scholarship offers: With a few offers from different schools on the table, a student can play one off the other and get the best deal for themselves.
  • Filling a crucial role on a team: Not all positions or events are created equal. A sprinter, for example, is valued more than a long jumper in track and field. Or a pitcher does better than an outfielder in baseball.
  • Changing divisions: If a student-athlete isn’t getting the scholarship offer they need in a Division I college sport, they could consider moving down to Division II, where their abilities might have greater currency.

A Partial-Ride Scholarship Is Still a Good Ride

Student-athletes who do not want to play the big-revenue-generating sports don’t need to despair. They can play what are considered “equivalency” sports. While full-ride scholarships pay the whole cost of a year of school, the scholarship funds from equivalency sports are handled by the coaches and divided among the athletes, giving them “partial rides.”

At his or her discretion, the coach can divide the money equally among athletes, supply it to veteran athletes who have played for a season or more, or the top performers, whatever they choose.

Some Division I equivalency sports include:

  • Baseball
  • Rifle
  • Skiing
  • Cross-country
  • Track and field
  • Soccer
  • Fencing
  • Swimming
  • Golf
  • Tennis
  • Gymnastics
  • Volleyball
  • Ice hockey
  • Field hockey
  • Fencing
  • Rowing
  • Water polo
  • Lacrosse
  • Wrestling 


Not everyone on a college team has a scholarship. In some cases, they can be “preferred walk-ons,” which means an athlete has been given a spot on a team but without financial assistance. They might be able to get financial assistance in their second year, but nothing is set in stone.

A recruited walk-on is an athlete who a coach has an interest in, but they are not guaranteed a spot on the team or financial assistance. They have to get to college by their own means and compete for their place on the team.

An unrecruited walk-on is a student who qualifies for admission to the school and then tries to join the team through an open tryout. 

Other Ways to Pay College Bills

It’s also worth noting that a partial ride can be turned by a student into a full one, combining different scholarship awards and financial aid to cover the entire or majority of costs.

For example, if a student has a minimum GPA of 3.5, and test scores of 25-plus on the ACT or 1200 on the SAT, they might be able to qualify for an academic scholarship. This might also be beneficial as a form of security. While a student can lose an athletic scholarship if they are injured, they can continue to rely on the academic one if they keep up their grades.

They should also consider looking outside their college for scholarships from the federal government, corporations, nonprofit organizations, private providers, and other sources.

A good place to start looking for help is the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), where financial aid can come from grants, loans, and work-study funds. It is wise for student-athletes to check out their options early since many scholarships and types of financial aid are given out on a first-come-first-served basis.

It should also be noted that while Division I and II colleges offer athletic scholarships, Division III ones do not, so other types of financial aid need to be considered there. 

Eligibility Requirements for Athletic Scholarships

A student who is a gifted high school athlete but entirely neglects their academic studies could be in trouble when it comes to their eligibility for an athletic scholarship. They must meet minimum academic standards, and their chances increase if they are better-than-usual students.

The NCAA determines academic eligibility for Division I and II colleges using a combination of their SAT/ACT test scores, high school coursework, and the student’s GPA as calculated using the “NCAA Core Courses.”

Even students with a 3.5-plus GPA and honors courses could be deemed ineligible because they don’t meet one of these requirements:

  • Core course requirement: Students must pass 16 NCAA-approved courses in high school.
  • Core course GPA: The NCAA does not use a student’s entire high school transcript to determine their GPA but only the core courses.
  • NCAA sliding scale: The NCAA uses a combination of GPA, SAT, or ACT scores to determine a student’s eligibility.

The NCAA also requires students to be “amateurs,” as determined by their answers on an amateurism certificate. For example, they can’t:

  • Have signed a contract with or received benefits from an agent
  • Receive money for promoting products or services
  • Use their athletic prowess and fame to make money
  • Delay their full-time enrollment in college to compete in organized sports 

The Best Way to Level the Playing Field

Student-athletes cannot rely on having some or all of their college expenses covered by athletic scholarships, so it’s best to go in with a sound game plan. 

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