Great Expectations

If their child has any athletic talent, most parents are ready to sign them up for a college scholarship. Hosting an information meeting on the topic can help families understand the realities of the process.

By Dr. David Hoch

David Hoch, EdD, is the Athletic Director at Loch Raven High School, in Baltimore County, Md., and a former Head Men’s Basketball Coach at the University of Pittsburgh-Bradford. He is the current President of the Maryland State Athletic Directors’ Association and a frequent contributor to Athletic Management. He can be reached at

Athletic Management, 17.3, April/May 2005,

With the rising costs of a college education, more of today’s parents want their children to get a college athletic scholarship. But parents continue to be confused about the process and the types of opportunities available. In response, I have presented "College Athletic Recruiting Evenings" for the parents of athletes at the high schools where I have worked.

While large high schools might want to make this an annual event, it also works well to hold this meeting once every two years if your population is fairly small. In either case, encourage parents of freshmen to attend so they understand the process as early as possible.

The main focus of the evening is to dispel myths, explain how the recruiting process works, and instruct parents in how to help their children make good choices. Because of my experience as a former college coach, I am the main speaker at our recruiting evenings. Other athletic directors may choose to have a veteran coach or even an administrator from a nearby college lead the presentation.

The most important goal of the recruiting evening is to dispel two myths about college scholarships: First, that there are plenty of free rides out there, and second, that college coaches look only at athletic performance when recruiting.

To disprove the first myth, I explain that there are approximately 6.9 million high school athletes in the United States and about 126,000 full or partial scholarships available. That means that for every 100 high school players, fewer than two will receive any type of athletic scholarship.

Then I give them a couple of concrete examples. In football, there are just over one million high school participants and just under 25,000 NCAA Division I players. That’s a two percent chance of playing D-I football. In girls’ volleyball, there are 400,000 high school players and 4,200 D-I players—a one percent chance. Boys’ basketball has the lowest odds at 0.9 percent.

This might seem like a downer, but it’s really important to make parents aware of the numbers. When high school athletes and their parents know these statistics early enough, it can help reduce their focus on college athletic scholarships and help them plan more realistic alternatives.

To dispel the second myth, I emphasize that, more than ever before, college coaches are looking for student-athletes who can succeed in the classroom and represent their school in a favorable manner off the field. Especially at the NCAA Division I level, where new academic reform rules have now been fully implemented, college coaches are more closely scrutinizing potential recruits’ academic abilities. Low graduation rates of student-athletes now have negative repercussions on college programs, so even coaches at the highest levels cannot overlook poor grades. In addition, students with very low grade-point averages and SAT scores in high school will not even qualify to compete during their first year in college, which is a major deterrent for a coach.

Since today’s college coaches are involved with their athletes virtually year round, they want to be surrounded by positive, enthusiastic, and hard working individuals. And coaches definitely want young people with good character.

Another reality we bring forth is that recruiting is not the meat market portrayed in the mainstream media. The summer camp scene is not the most personal way to screen prospects, but it is just one small aspect of the recruiting process. The more important part of the recruiting process involves communication between the college coach and the athlete.

In fact, being recruited is a lot like going through the process of finding your first job. College coaches are interested in high school athletes who respond to their correspondence in a timely manner, show maturity, exhibit a great work ethic, and come highly recommended by their high school coaches.

A record-breaking time in the 100-meter dash or a school record for touchdown passes counts a lot. But parents should know that character can be just as important, especially at the lower-level college programs, and that all college coaches want athletes who will fit in well with their program and school. That means the coach is looking for an athlete who is excited to attend his or her school and has a personality that meshes with other student-athletes in the program.

We spend a lot of time describing the details of college sports and recruiting. Since most parents think of NCAA Division I athletics when they think of college sports, I explain that there are several different levels of play and that scholarships vary among them (see "Levels of Play" below). Other areas we discuss include the following:

Rules of Recruiting: Whether the athlete is looking to play at the NCAA Division I level or at a junior college, parents should start reading the recruiting regulations of those schools’ governing bodies. This will help further explain the coaches’ processes for recruiting and ensure the athlete is doing what he or she needs to do to be recruited by the best schools.

NCAA Clearinghouse: If the athlete is interested in attending an NCAA Division I or II school, he or she must register on the NCAA Clearinghouse. College coaches in these divisions cannot recruit athletes until they are registered.

How Coaches Recruit: Parents should understand that coaches start out with a very long list of potential recruits. Some of these names come from scouting at summer camps, some from mass mailings to high school coaches, and others from recruiting services.

Most coaches send out initial letters and information sheets to everyone on this list—often hundreds of letters each year. If an athlete expresses some interest in the program, he or she will get future mailings and be rated according to the school’s recruiting needs. If the athlete does not return this initial questionnaire, he or she will likely be crossed off the list.

Coaches rate players by watching them play in person, viewing game videotapes, reading recommendations from high school coaches, and judging how well they respond to the coaches’ e-mails, telephone calls, letters, and in-person visits.

Campus Visits: At some levels of play, recruits are offered an all-expenses paid trip to the college. However, if parents want to come along, they will need to pay for themselves. The high school athlete normally rooms with a current athlete and gets to experience what life is like as a student-athlete at that school.

Recruiting Downtime: At some levels and in some sports, recruiting rules specify when coaches can recruit and when they cannot. It’s important for athletes and parents to be aware of the recruiting calendar in their sport.

By this point in the process, parents realize that recruiting is more complicated than they’d thought. Hopefully, they also understand that, if their child wants to be recruited, there is much work that they need to do. The next segment of the evening discusses the parents’ and athlete’s roles.

The first thing I mention is that parents should not feel alone in this process. They should always enlist the help of their child’s coach and the school’s guidance counselor.

While some high school coaches will assist their athletes every step of the way, others are less knowledgeable. Regardless, parents should be asking the high school coach whether he or she thinks their child has a chance to compete at the college level and what could improve his or her chances. The NCAA has asked its member coaches to work more with high school coaches and less with club coaches in the recruiting process, so it’s critical that the athlete’s high school coach is on the same page as the parents.

The guidance counselor should also be a key source of help. Although we’re focusing on the athletic side of colleges in this meeting, the guidance counselor can and should help the family sort through the maze of decisions when selecting a college. In trying to find the right fit, there are many factors the athlete should be thinking about, including the size of a school, its location, and its academic strengths.

Many parents ask me whether it is worthwhile to use recruiting services to assist them in the process. These services can be helpful, but I warn parents to look at the cost-to-benefit ratio before they get involved. Sometimes, recruiting services will "guarantee" to get a child a scholarship, but may only deliver a $500 scholarship at a school that costs $15,000 a year to attend.

Some parents assume that the recruiting process starts with coaches contacting athletes. However, it is perfectly acceptable, and appreciated by the college coach, when the high school athlete contacts the college coach first. A well-written letter, especially with a letter of recommendation from the high school coach, will definitely make a good first impression.

The letter should by written by the athlete, detailing his or her accomplishments in athletics, academics, and leadership. Athletes can also write about their aspirations, their interest in the college, and the character traits that make them stand out. However, don’t include outrageous claims. (I once got a letter in which a player actually stated that he was the next Larry Bird.) And be sure the letter has no misspellings or grammatical mistakes. (Those with my name spelled wrong were quickly tossed into the trash can.)

Athletes should also put together a videotape to send to schools that request more information. Here are the tips I give parents on making videotapes:

• Send one good game tape and not a collection of highlights. As a coach, I didn’t just want to see a young man swish three-pointers. I also needed to know if he would play defense and pass to open teammates, and how many shots it took him to actually hit one of those long-range baskets. A full game tape helps the coach see if the athlete is a leader on the court, if he listens during a timeout, and if he hustles throughout the whole game.

• Tell the college coach what number and color uniform your recruit is wearing so he or she doesn’t have to guess which player to watch.

• Make sure that the quality of the tape is good enough that the coach can clearly see the action.

• Send a copy and keep the original tape. While coaches will generally make every effort to return your tape, they can occasionally get lost.

Allowing time at the end for questions, our evening takes one and a half to two hours. If you are confronted with a question that throws you for a loop, be sure to offer to get back to the parent or refer them to the guidance counselor.

Offering to host a recruiting evening for parents certainly means you will have to invest time in the undertaking. But once you’ve planned and hosted your first one, you will only have to make minor adjustments in the future.

Try it! Your parents and athletes deserve this information and will appreciate your efforts. And most importantly, you will be steering your athletes in the right direction.

Other Formulas
If you are going to make this evening an annual or even a bi-annual event, you may want to occasionally change your approach in order to keep it fresh.

With plenty of advance notice and specific guidelines, you can invite a coach or two from a local college to make the presentation. Often, if the college coach’s schedule is open, he or she will be happy to help. After all, this is an excellent method of making contacts and enhancing the college’s name and reputation.

In another twist, I have invited former athletes from our school who went on to college athletics to address the group. I provide these athletes with detailed guidelines about questions that will probably arise during the presentation.

Or, consider inviting college athletic directors, directors of admissions, or your school’s guidance counselor. They are out there and willing to help. In most cases, all you have to do is ask well enough in advance.

Some recruiting services also offer individuals to speak at this type of event. This is an option, but you should check out the background of the speaker beforehand, as some are self-anointed experts with little actual experience. Often you can do just as well on your own, with a little work, help, and practice.

Questions to Ask
When high school students start to think about college choices, they need to know the answers to these questions from the start:

• What are my academic priorities?
• Can I afford to go to college without a scholarship?
• Am I good enough to play my sport at the next level? Am I committed enough to spend a large number of hours on my sport when I get to college?
• Do I want to play at the highest level I can, even if that means I may never be a starter? Or would I rather play at a level where I can be a leader on the team from the start?
• What type of coaching do I prefer?
• What type of teammates do I prefer?
• What type of environment do I prefer?

Levels of Play
To help parents better understand scholarship opportunities, here’s how I explain the various levels of play:

Under the NCAA banner, there are three divisions: Division I, Division II, and Division III. Along with having the most media coverage, Division I teams can offer full athletic scholarships. The same can be said for Division II teams, although they have fewer scholarships per sport than Division I programs. In some sports, it’s common to offer partial scholarships.

The real difference comes with Division III schools, which can not offer athletic scholarships. Division III schools can award financial aid and grants based upon academic talent and leadership, and when packaged together, these sources can actually pay for a youngster’s total college education. In some cases, these packages offer more money than a partial scholarship at an NCAA Division I or II school.

However, the financial aid cannot be based on the student’s athleticism. In fact, Division III has started a pilot program that tracks the amount of financial aid provided to athletes vs. nonathletes at its institutions to uncover any discrepancies.

Apart from the NCAA schools are colleges that belong to the NAIA (National Association of Interscholastic Athletics) and NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association). These organizations also divide their member schools into different levels, with some offering scholarships.

Traditionally, many student-athletes who are struggling academically in high school choose to attend a junior college with a strong scholarship-based athletic program, get their academics in shape, then go on to a four-year school. However, recent NCAA academic reform includes more stringent continuing eligibility standards, which makes it more difficult for a junior college graduate to immediately be eligible to play at a four-year school.

In a nutshell, parents need to understand that the types and amounts of athletic scholarships available vary greatly: A "scholarship" doesn’t always mean a free ride to college. And new NCAA academic reform makes the eligibility process more complicated for everyone to understand. The key is for athletes and their parents to ask the college coach up front about the scholarships he or she can offer and how they work at his or her particular school.

Another distinction that needs to be made is that the level of a college or university athletic program has nothing to do with its academic quality and reputation. A school chooses its division based upon many factors including its philosophy, its mission, and the expense of fielding an athletic program—but not on the level of its academics.

There are two examples that I offer to our parents that illustrate the complexity of scholarships and levels of play. At my last coaching position, an NAIA school with full basketball scholarships (which is actually now an NCAA Division III institution), we were recruiting a young man who was 6’10" and would have been a very good addition to our program. I offered him a full scholarship, which covered tuition, room, and board, but did not include student fees and books (which equaled about $1,500 at the time).

The family’s college selection came down to my school and one other, an NCAA Division III college. While this other school could not offer a basketball scholarship, it did put together a very good package. First, the family qualified for a financial aid grant, and then the college added two academic scholarships to cover all costs, including student fees and books.

Even though I was offering a "free ride," the D-III school was offering more money. It was apparently a better fit for the young man, too, as the family decided to go with the Division III college.

The next example occurred at my last high school coaching position, where I had a 6’6" rebounder who was one of the hardest working young men that I have encountered in my 24-year career. In his senior year, his college choices came down to a low Division I team that offered a full athletic scholarship, and a Division III team that offered no athletic scholarships.

The quality of the education and the significance of the degree at this D-III school was top notch, while the reputation of the D-I school was nowhere close to it. The family had the finances to pay for the D-III school and I encouraged the young man to attend the nonscholarship school. However, he ultimately decided that playing at the D-I level was more important. The bottom line is that for each family, the importance of each factor will vary.

For athletes interested in playing at an NCAA school, this link provides information for students and parents, including the ability to download recruiting calendars and the publication A Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete.
Use this site to register for the NCAA Clearinghouse.
The NAIA provides information for college-bound high school athletes at this site.
Click on "Eligibility Information" at this site to find out information on schools competing in the National Junior College Athletic Association.
This site gives information on a guide published by the National Interscholastic Athletic Administrators Association to help parents and athletes with the college recruiting process.