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Recruiting series: Reality remains few earn scholarships, but rewards are great

Legacy's Kailey Edwards will play college basketball at the University of Denver next winter.
Legacy’s Kailey Edwards will play college basketball at the University of Denver next winter.

Editor’s note:

Today’s story about the rarity and rewards of athletic scholarships is the first in a three-part series looking at playing beyond the high school level.

Coming Thursday: A look at the various routes athletes take to earning spots on college rosters.

Coming June 24: The good, the bad and the ugly of recruiting from athletes’, parents’ and coaches’ perspectives.


Kailey Edwards is typical of most college-bound athletes. Despite the toil, trouble and effort in earning her spot at the next level, the recruiting process was an overall positive experience for Legacy’s star basketball player.

Whittling down a handful of potential favorites to the University of Denver was, in a word, exciting. It was so enthralling to the lifelong hoops player, it actually bled over into her academic life.

“I did my senior Capstone project on the whole recruiting process and what it took to get to Denver,” said Edwards, who helped her team to its first Class 5A state championship in 2012. “Overall, getting recruited was one of the best experiences of my life.”

Capstone is an intensive, research-based project that incorporates writing, organization, presentation and creative skills completed by every student enrolled in a senior English class at Legacy.

Advancing to a college program, a lifelong goal of many athletes, is an emotional experience. It is a dream forged in morning conditioning workouts, summer weight-lifting sessions and peak performances at just the right time.

Earning a spot on a college roster also is about beating the odds.

Even with around 2,000 schools sponsoring 16,466 athletic teams between NCAA Divisions I, II and III, NAIA, junior colleges and other associations, few athletes move on to play in college. Even fewer earn athletic scholarships.

NCAA statistics show exactly how steep the slope is from high school to college. According to the organization’s website: Only around 6 percent of high school athletes play college sports and 2 percent of high school athletes receive college athletic scholarships.

Chasing such scarce resources has drastically changed how the recruiting process works from the not too distance past.

When Marc Cowell graduated from Thompson Valley High School in Loveland in 1988, it required little more than his coach’s recommendation to get a spot on the football team at Bethany College in Lindsborg, Kan. Now the process undergone by the Holy Family baseball coach’s players is nearly unrecognizable.

“It’s like night and day,” he said. “There weren’t club teams or showcase tournaments in the summer. I didn’t even send a video to get recruited. My spot a Bethany purely came on the word of my coach.”

For better or worse, the race for scholarships has created an industry. Clubs, camps and services have popped up across the nation, some promising to better an athlete’s chances at getting some or all of college paid for. And while the odds are long for athletic scholarships, the payoff can be substantial.

In a day and age when the debt burden of a four-year degree has the potential to hobble graduates’ earning potential — student loan debt exceeds credit card debt in America — scholarship athletes come out ahead.

An analysis of institutional merit-based grants — the definition under which athletic scholarships fall — by online scholarship resource publisher Mark Kantrowitz found athletic financial awards have the potential to greatly defray overall college expenses. His look at institutional grants from 2007 to 2008 found:

The average award for athletic scholarship (including need-based institutional aid) was around $10,000, nearly $4,000 more than other students receiving institutional grants.

56.7 percent of scholarship athletes graduated with college debt, compared with 65.3 percent of those who didn’t receive athletic scholarships.

Of those scholarship athletes that graduated with debt, it was around $5,000 less than those who did not receive athletic scholarships.

Kantrowitz’s research also showed athletic funding has grown 4.5 percent annually for the past 15 years. It is a trend that matches research by the National Center for Educational Statistics, which found merit-based scholarships were the fastest-growing type of institutional grants since the 1990s.

The up-front money some families spend on club programs, personal trainers and other methods, however, can offset the payoff of athletic scholarships. And the chase for college money can build unfounded expectations.

One of the most profound is the hunt for what is known as the “full ride,” in which books, room, board and tuition are all completely covered by a scholarship.

Full rides do exist, mainly in the Division-I revenue-producing sports of football and men’s and women’ basketball. On occasion an athlete in other sports can wow a college staff and earn an all-expenses-paid education, as in the case of Fairview soccer player Shane O’Neill and the University of Virginia.

But for the most part, athletic scholarships pay only a fraction of college expenses, and outside of Division I, are only guaranteed on a year-to-year basis. Some coaches even shy from awarding them to incoming freshmen, preferring athletes work their way into a scholarship over the course of a career.

Colorado State University-Pueblo football coach John Wristen opts for this method in most cases.

“We’re much more like the NFL in that respect,” said the Thunderwolves coach, whose team finished ninth in the Division-II rankings in 2011. “We have X amount of money, and we budget it per position. If there is anything leftover, then we might use it for a freshman.”

Chasing scholarship money has drawn cheers and jeers from all corners of the amateur-sporting world. For most college-bound athletes, the money is really just icing on the cake. The real reward is a chance to continue playing the games they love.

Emma Lazaroff falls distinctly in that category. The Centaurus lacrosse star is slated to play next season at Duke University in Durham, N.C. But she far from limited herself to Division-I national powerhouse programs in her hunt for the next level.

Lazaroff talked to and looked at every program, from Division I to III, a level that does not award athletic scholarships. Her main goal regarding lacrosse was just to fulfill a dream she had from the moment she started playing sports.

“Ever since elementary school, I’ve dreamed about playing at the highest level I could,” she said. “For women’s sports, that meant dreaming about the Olympics or college athletics.”

Follow Woody on Twitter: @ElwoodKShelton