US College Scholarships – Hurdles, Pitfalls & Truths

US College Basketball Arena
US College Basketball Arena

Are you a parent of an athlete or an athlete seeking US college scholarships? I am the parent of an Australian student athlete who ventured to the US in pursuit of his own dreams.

I want to share my opions.

I want to share what I have found from the perspective of a parent of an Australian bound USA basketball student-athlete (in his second year) of going to college. This is a summary of my observations and opinions based on my on-going research including USA visits, dealings with recruiters, coaches, assistants and tour groups. Despite my credentials in applied psychology and financial planning (plus 48 years life experience), I was not prepared for this ride (I never expected this would be my son’s journey). Over the course of the last 3 years I have spent endless hours on webinars, websites and talking with recruiters and marketers to garner more knowledge around the U.S. College recruitment process. I am not providing personal advice nor listing pros and cons around U.S. schools, simply my experience and thoughts. Some people may value globalisation and perceive study abroad and becoming a global citizen as an advantage, while others may value an allegiance to their own education system and local values. I am certain other parents have had different experiences to mine and may or may not choose to talk about their experiences for their own reasons. But I wish to share my experience to potentially help others make a timely decision as to whether the U.S. college system is for them . To help them consider whether better education and athletic options may exist at home or elsewhere in the world, other than the U.S. college system.

USA college/university campuses are effectively run as businesses not charities.

Regardless of public or private status, colleges in the United States are run like businesses. Money for operations has to come from somewhere – tax payers, lenders loans, corporate and private donors, local & international students etc. Consumers of products and services are in general customers who pay for fulfilment of their needs and wants. ‘Consumers’ of U.S. college services are students who are paying a price with money, time and effort to gain a higher education and access highly developed facilities, professors, coaches and resources for science, technology, sport, art etc.

Scholarships: The more an athlete has to pay, the less likely they are to play.

Unless you are an elite athlete in your sport and a high academic achiever (SAT of 1300 and above – ) you can potentially be recruited and offered a large amount in grants or financial awards (or discounts). If this is not the case  you will most likely have to learn how to get into the college system without any promise of ever playing a game. When athletes are looking to go to America one of the terms thrown about quite often is the word “scholarship”. Scholarships are a common term used to describe any amount of financial award to help cover school costs. For example, some schools offer a US$1,000 scholarship for campus visits, but such awards only apply to student accounts upon their enrolment and acceptance. And then there are schools who can approve thousands of dollars to the right applicants to cover major costs like tuition, accommodation and meals. Where full tuition, accommodation and meals are all provided, this is often referred to as a “Full scholarship” or “Full ride”. Where all three are applied to one athlete, one would expect this athlete is elite and will most likely play. “Part scholarships” may be awarded for tuition, meals or accommodation and the less offered is often a good measure of how much an athlete is valued. The more an athlete has to pay, the less likely they are to play. Athletes and their families are required to pay any remaining balance and costs.

The business of college “Recruiters” and “Marketers”!

You also need to know about the important role recruiters play in U.S. college system. U.S. Colleges have well established worldwide recruiting networks with thousands of agents providing various services, usually for a fee. I spoke with two distinct types of recruitment agents in the process. They are either operating as ‘recruiters’ or ‘marketers’. If you are approached by a ‘recruiter’ who sees your potential for U.S. schools, you will not be asked to pay, as they are already funded by schools or acting as coaches assisting teams looking for prospects to fulfil their needs. Then their are ‘marketing’ agencies either from the United States, locally or other countries who require payment for their services, which could be anywhere from US$500 – $5,000 without any guarantees or promises of placements. Despite their rhetoric, these agencies operate as businesses. From my experience as a financial planner, if a business is not creating sufficient income to break even or earn profits to ensure the sustainability of their operations, they cease to exist and/or no longer provide valuable services. So I understand and am no way opposed to anyone paying a fair price for valuable services. However what I gleaned from my experience was marketing agents are using the term ‘scholarships’ loosely to initially attract large numbers of people to their service. Most agents work hard for their money but most cannot guarantee customers a specific or desired outcome, as marketers are not the decision makers in the college recruitment process. But they may be a great alternative to your own efforts in sending thousands of e-mails or making hundreds of phone calls to schools directly when starting the recruitment process.

So, if you are asked to pay any money for exposure, you are dealing with marketing agents who can offer anything, from over-exaggerated numbers and various quality of personal contacts with “high” division coaches, USA tours, showcases, all types of on-line athlete profiles and other on-line presence/marketing options. In many instances, their systems are self serve in that, profiles are usually completed and uploaded by athletes themselves before they can be shared with the marketers networks through digital platforms (which marketers either offer free or as subscription only to college coaches), mass mailing, e-mailing etc. Athletes are generally also required to edit and upload their own highlight videos to their profiles which may not always be viewed by marketing agents due to time restrictions and sheer volume of clients in their system. In some instances you may, and I did, encounter some ‘marketers’ in Australia who may help you without taking a fee for some of the services they provide.

Don’t let your unconscious filter distort your reality.

Due to a natural desire for achievement our internal filters may create a sense of ‘reality’ which is distorted.  In the field of social psychology this is known as “illusory superiority” which is a human condition of cognitive bias whereby a person overestimates their own qualities and abilities. Athletes can believe their chances of being recruited on a full scholarship are much higher than they really are. Due to mainstream and social media glorifying highly paid athletes and businesses and corporations using individuals for marketing purposes to generate ever growing revenues, athletes may be led to think hard work is all they need to make it to the USA. Their dreams can come true if they really, really want it bad enough and the places absolutely exist in the U.S. college system (and beyond). For some this may be true. But the marketing of U.S. colleges as an option may also be misleading and costly if  a more complete statement is not considered: “U.S. college is not for everybody. There are suitable programs for serious athletes in the school system at costs which you may or may not be able or willing to pay”.

Every student-athlete who survived the 4-5 year U.S. college process is more qualified than me to tell you about the financial, physical, mental and emotional price paid pursuing this path. Some good advice may be to talk to others who did what you want to do before you commit to it. Coaches and/or their assistants in charge of recruiting are paid employees and have time constraints regarding communication with large numbers of prospective athletes. They are dealing with hundreds of daily e-mails from new prospects in addition to scores of other quality athletes (from both the U.S. and worldwide). Some may have already been on their watch list for months if not years before narrowing it down to the 1 to 6 prospects required for their next season’s needs.

Expressions of interest may be misleading.

Coaches can cause you to think they saw potential and are interested in you but they say the same to hundreds of other athletes and send the same email to many as they simply maximise their chances for success. Out of 50+ coaches and their assistant I’ve dealt with so far, there are few different personality ‘types’. The types are never 100% accurate as humans are multifaceted beings. However, if I were to label two personality types in this space they would be ‘maximisers’ and ‘satisfiers’. In terms of decision-making, satisfiers may be less complex to deal with. ‘Satisfier’ will benefit you by simply saying “Sorry, our roster is full”. They are satisfied with their completed selection. “Maximisers’ are more complex, hardly ever satisfied and thinking in terms of more, better etc. ‘Maximisers’ may say “I would love to have you on board. The roster is full but you can apply and see if we take you into our second team or ‘walk-on’ or something”. Depending on your own decision making style, you may be shocked by such communications with various U.S. college coaches. But understand each is operating at their own standards in an extremely dynamic and fiercely competitive recruitment environment of college sport.

All to script.

Highly successful agents use scripted wording for live or webinar presentations, first phone calls, emails and subsequent contacts to lead you step by step before you decide to pay for their service. In marketing this is known as a sales funnel. This is designed on purpose, not just to utilise a ‘numbers game’ sales strategy to deal with large numbers of prospects at various stages of exposure and interest by schools but also to utilise time and resources in a beneficial manner for all involved. Sales must be closed so decisions must be made timely. If you get pressed to pay or commit and you are not ready, the show will go on without you. Coaches and their assistants also use similar strategies to ‘close’ their selection/sale because they can (i.e. the number of prospects they work with are serving them well). ‘Marketing’ agents may not know who is interested or has contacted you unless you tell them. Agents avoid providing negotiation services to keep you in line with ‘amateur sport’ guidelines ( or ). It is preferable only athletes and parents talk to schools. Coaches will generally prefer to talk to athletes only. Agents also provide lots of free info through live or recorded webinars to all prospects and the only guarantee in the entire recruiting process for many sadly is information overload.

Taking credit.

Agents utilise social media to advertise and maintain perception of service value.  They announce athletes’ commitments to schools in congratulatory manners but may miss to acknowledge others (coaches, parents or athletes personal contacts) who may be directly responsible for the actual placement. In the ideal world, team efforts should be recognised and credit given where credit is due. If a recruitment agency does take credit and you have any issues, you can communicate directly with them, as I found most agents quite reasonable to deal with and will remove any misleading posts that appear they had anything to do with your recruitment.

U.S. College system dynamics – what’s at play?

Fully paid ‘scholarships’ in the U.S. are limited to top performers from 195 countries around the world, with USA citizens getting most of these. College athletics is highly competitive and dynamic environment where the priority for any team or coach within the system is to win. Most average college coaches earning US $32,270 per year. This puts them in the same business as other paid professional coaches ( and winning is paramount for them to continue to earn income and renew or secure a new contract each year. Their job seems to be not so much to develop athletes, their priority seems to be to pick the best available and eligible athletes each year. To then award a budgeted amount of funds among those athletes within any single program in order to win. The coaches and athletes are expected to perform through 2058 schools regulated by several national associations. The table below shows the actual figures for all sports where divisions are determined by school size and budget, with larger schools competing in Divisions I and II and smaller schools in Division III and below.

Number of College Scholarships

The reality check.

There are currently around 16 million students (3.3% internationals) enrolled in U.S. college system from your 2-year junior colleges to your 4-year colleges and universities. There are over half a million student-athletes. Competition for a limited number of athletic spots is fierce. Athletes want to use school facilities to train & compete and may need to accept any arrangements (including ‘red shirt’, ‘walkon’ or ‘second team’) to start with and possibly earn their way up to the top team. Without going into detailed stories of student-athletes I personally know, the only way to avoid disappointment and an early return home in October, is to work harder on yourself than on your game; any success is 80% psychology and 20% skills. You may be a great basketball point guard but if your coach thinks you are a better ‘bench warmer’ or your team needs you to play very few minutes at different positions, you’ll have to do it hard or go home – there is no other way about it. Any type of ‘entitlement’ mindset must be replaced with curiosity and hard work without recognition or reward to avoid giving up, feeling betrayed or lied to. Going in, one needs to understand the system (which is completely impersonal in nature) before judging people who operate within it. Understand this, the higher your chances of satisfaction. Highly successful programs are run by teams of people working towards worthy goals and it’s easier to tolerate inconsistencies when things are not taken personally.

Meet your competition.

Competition for even more limited number of scholarships is another level of fierce. High division schools follow U.S. athletes from their early years of high school years to secure top performers with proven stats. Only about 2% of USA high school seniors win sports scholarships yearly at NCAA institutions. The average athletic scholarship is less than $11,000. In reality, athletic  scholarships are often not as generous as merit scholarships for academics and other talents. Instead of ‘shopping’ for athletic scholarships, it may be smarter to firstly identify schools that would be a match academically and then inquire about their sports program. Getting a college education can prove to be more important than playing a sports (unless already drafted to the NBA) and the money for academic accomplishments is often more than a sports scholarship. There is various types of financial assistance provided directly by schools or through developed networks of USA awards and grants ( ).

International athletes can be perceived as ‘higher risk’ by coaches who have the right to trust in their own nation’s athletes with high world rankings. Even international state or nationally ranked athletes may be perceived as ‘less’ compared to athletes from the USA. If you are national representative of the country with population of 25 million, it is different level of competition compared to the USA with a population of 325 million. Another factor that can influence college coaches in selection of international athletes is the world ranking of national teams. For example, Australian Women’s basketball is a high ranking (currently 3rd after USA and Spain in placings after the last FIBA World Cup) while Men are ranked 10th internationally. Therefore, Australian girls are more likely to be more attractive to higher division schools compared to boys.

At what cost?

In reality most athletes will be forced to spend money on a U.S. education. Most Australian athletes aspiring to head to the U.S. will not enter on a “full ride” but may be awarded “part scholarships” at best. You will have to pay something. Where you decide to go to school will also add or reduce the financial burden. The money to contribute to college costs will have to come from somewhere (savings, loans, grants, additional jobs etc.). Annual net costs (after grants, awards and scholarships applied) for two semesters over 9 months can vary from US $6,000 to $80,000 for top schools in popular areas like California, Chicago & New York. These areas already have large numbers of international students where less discounts or grants may be available and living costs are higher than elsewhere. The number of Australian families I personally know, supporting their student-athletes towards degrees at 4 year schools playing for mid-range divisions are investing on average US $25,000 per year. Student visas limit any work options to 20 hours per week on campus only. Also consider the fact student-athletes (in particular freshman) may be overwhelmed by the amount of training, lectures, study, travelling & playing required to maintain eligibility (GPA grading system) to fully utilise scholarships offered or to continue sport involvement. There is no Government aid or student loans available to Australian students for study in the U.S. and funds usually come from family savings or further borrowings against home equity. This is not ideal as Australian home loans are usually set up for 25 year loan term where longer the term of the loan, more interest is paid. If AU $100,000 is borrowed against home equity at 5% for 25 year term to cover 4 years of USA college, total principal and interest repayment will amount to $175,377. The student-athlete will be ‘debt free’ but at the expense of others. This may be acceptable to some families, but not necessarily to others based on circumstances.

Other things to consider in finishing.

The U.S. college system is just one way for young athletes to grow into mature adults and realise “I’m on my own” while working hard towards their desired outcomes and goals. If you are researching college as an option, lower cost options elsewhere should be considered too. If college still looks like the way to go a few other points may be considered. What is your level of commitment? Do you want to ‘try’ the U.S. college experience for one year or are you fully committed to earn your degree and play your favourite sport for 4-5 years?

Basketball group tours organised from Australia can cost anywhere from AU$5,000 – $9,500 for 2-3 week experience. Again dangling the “U.S. scholarship” carrot as a marketing strategy, or sending you emails or sms messages suggesting you have been “selected” or to “pay to trial” for a tour again is a strategy to generate income for their business. The tours do allow athletes to showcase their talents and test the waters and see if the U.S. is for them. The reality is, most tours unless they have “Marquee” highly ranked athlete/s on the team to attract high level schools are unlikely to be seen by high level college coaches. Touring teams with “Marquee” players are usually promoted to higher ranked schools ahead of tournaments to ensure interest ahead of the playing schedule. If your touring team does not have any standout players, you may not get seen. Also, touring teams who fail to win there first couple of games at tournaments often get relegated to lower courts where college coaches are less like to watch. Some venues can have up to 15 courts playing and college coaches will only watch the top 2 or 3 courts. In addition to group tours there are options for athletes to attend showcases all year round in the U.S. as individuals. These are hosted throughout the year (registration cost an average US $150 for few hours of play), it is unlikely to get you recruited, as again the event organisers are out to make money, but these events can give you a ‘taste’ of the level of play before you decide on your own commitment.

The real question to ask is, does your family have the resources (money, time, connections) required to support your short or long term commitment? Family support is crucial not just in the first year but right through your years of study towards a U.S. degree. Have you researched the school’s website to estimate tuition, accommodation, meals and other costs for international students? Have you spoken to other Aussie athletes about their college experience at the school you want to attend? Apart from most 2 year junior colleges (similar to Australian TAFE) in California where no grants or discounts are allowed for internationals and no option to reside on campus, freshmen are required to live on campus and enrol into meal plans payable per semester. Depending on type of meal plans offered, costs can be anywhere from US$7-$12 per meal. This may be a high cost for bowl of cereal with milk but large numbers of schools are outsourcing canteen services to private corporate catering businesses which are also in the business of earning income to sustain their services.

Lastly, where would you like to live between August and May considering your own tolerance to extreme temperatures and different types of communities – over populated & expensive areas of California or Chicago vs. university cities in the middle of nowhere? How will you deal with the culture shock, the rising costs of the US education every year, being away from home and feelings of loneliness? Do you have what it takes to make your dreams become your reality?

Contibuted by Stella Sarin
Parent & Businesswoman

Founder of Essence of Sport