Alan Versaw, girls coach at The Classical Academy, and Colorado editor of MileSplit.us, have collaborated on a series of posts dedicated to the college recruiting process. The first and second installment focus on what questions to ask the high school coach, while the third installment is Alan’s extremely helpful scholarship primer. The post below starts with Alan’s comments and ends with my comments, which are in italics.
What considerations are unique to the world of women’s track and field scholarships?
Having discussed track and field scholarships in general in the last in the previous installment, we now turn our attention to the topic of women’s track and field scholarships.
A few caveats are in order. I come to this discussion from the perspective of the high school coach. Jay Johnson comes from the perspective of the college coach and recruiting coordinator. As such, we don’t necessarily see all the same things.
It’s also the case that my experience with female athletes who have received track and field scholarship offers is rather extensive. That experience will help me to speak from experience about many issues on the women’s side of the ledger. I will need to rely much more heavily on Jay Johnson when we discuss men’s track and field scholarships in the next installment.
Finally, please take the content of this article with a grain of salt. There are no hard and fast rules about who or what level of performance gets a particular level of scholarship. Everything is subject to the idiosyncracies of the particular situation.
Any sheet you might have seen stating that such-and-such a performance puts an athlete in line for a full-ride scholarship should be treated with a healthy dose of skepticism. Anything you may have heard about minimum standards to get any sort of scholarship is equally baseless.
I know of a 24:xx high school cross country runner who received a fairly substantial athletic scholarship to a community college. I know of a 13.0x 100-meter sprinter who got athletic scholarship money to attend a Division I institution (and this was no obscure DI school). I still scratch my head over both situations and wonder what the respective college coaches knew–or possibly thought they knew–that I didn’t.
A track and field scholarship is least as much about matching desires with opportunity as it is about performances and sliding scales of awards.
I’ve been stunned by the size of some scholarship offers made to athletes I did not regard as top-tier athletes–some of my own athletes and some athletes coming out of programs that my friends coach. Similarly, I’ve been surprised by some comparatively small offers made to athletes I considered to be top-tier prospects. As I mentioned earlier, the rules are anything but hard and fast.
To illustrate how across-the-board offers can be, I’ll discuss of few of the details of two offers one of my former high school athletes received. A major Division I program offered her a substantial athletic scholarship, in excess of 80% of the price of tuition, room and board, and expenses. That school also indicated they’d likely be able to cover most of the rest through academic financial aid normally extended to students of her standing. The same girl was offered what amounted to about a 40% scholarship from a Division II institution.
In this case, the Division II offer was illustrative of a reality faced by numerous scholarship-worthy high school athletes.
In a conversation with the coach at that school, I learned that the program had very little scholarship money to offer that year. Most importantly, it was a low year in their cycle of available scholarship money. Things sometimes work out that way.
They had committed a large amount of money the previous year and those women were a long way from being ready to graduate. Only a couple of scholarship athletes were graduating and no scholarship athletes had left the program that year. Additionally, the school had taken a couple of non-scholarship athletes who had performed well and signed them to partial athletic scholarships for the upcoming year. Consequently, the school had about 1.0 available scholarships to offer to incoming freshmen and they wanted to spread that amount across at least four or five athletes.
My athlete could have been Octavious Freeman or Chelsey Sveinsson and she still would not have approached anything like a full ride from that school. As it was, a 40% scholarship offer represented a substantial vote of confidence from the program.
If you have your heart set on attending a particular school, this story could very well end up being your story. It’s not necessarily a reflection on what you accomplished in high school; it’s a reflection of the current realities within the track and field program at that school.
If, however, a female with a nice running, jumping, or throwing resume is willing to consider multiple schools, the likelihood of a very nice scholarship offer increases dramatically.
As indicated in the preceding article, the supply of track and field scholarships is greater for women than it is for men. And, the demand on that larger number of scholarships is smaller. It’s a cold, hard fact of life that a lower percentage of female than male high school track and field athletes want to go on to compete in college. This situation creates opportunity, and lots of it, for the women who do want to compete.
Without meaning to cast suspicion on what I said before about there being no hard-and-fast rules about certain performances attaching to certain levels of scholarship offers, my experiences suggest that 5K cross country times in the low 18s (at altitude) begin to put a female athlete in line for full-ride consideration. Below 18 minutes and the likelihood that at least one school makes a full-ride offer starts to increase dramatically. Any high school girl who can run sub-20 should be able to attract some scholarship offers somewhere, even at the Division I level. Choices and amounts may be limited, but there are many programs happy to bring in a sub-20 kind of athlete.
I assume those times need to be a little faster for athletes from lower altitudes, though I have been dumbstruck a time or two by the realization that there are a few college coaches from lower altitudes who indicate no appreciation of the effect that altitude has on distance running. To the extent that these coaches recruit by standards of performance, they apply the same standards to athletes from higher and lower elevations. It sometimes worries me that there may be other gaps in the understanding of distance running in the minds of these coaches.
All that said, track times are more important than cross country times, places in big meets are more important than times (at least for cross country), and your relationship with your high school coach matters. Very rarely will a high school coach make it a point to obstruct an athlete’s scholarship opportunities, but successful college coaches do learn to decipher the coded language high school coaches use to indicate an athlete is a disruptive influence or lacks a strong work ethic.
If you’re a female throwing the shot put in the high 30s, you have reason to believe you could have a portion of your college expenses paid for by an athletic scholarship. Reach into the 40s and both the probability and the size of the offer go up–fast.
About 5-5 starts getting serious attention in the high jump. 58-low or faster in the 400. Sub 2:18 in the 800. Over 17 feet in the long jump. Somewhere in the 15s in the 100 hurdles (I am aware there’s a lot of difference between a 15.0 and a 15.9, but I’m similarly aware that I’m not a hurdle guy, so I’ll stick with “somewhere in the 15s.”). 25.xx in the 200. Maybe not at Texas A&M or Oregon, but somewhere in Division I.
Should you abandon all hope if you’re not a threat to attain these marks? Absolutely not, especially not if the passion to run as a scholarship athlete courses through your veins. And the standards–vague and indefinite as the are–are typically even more generous at the Divsion II level.
Particularly if a school has a football program, the athletic department at that school is under intense pressure to maintain the sort of gender equity required by Title IX. This implies that the school will do all they can to bring as many women as they can (within reason, of course) into their athletic programs. Claims that athletic scholarships are routinely extended to warm bodies are mostly exaggerated, but the reality is a very large percentage of girls who regularly place in big invitational meets in high school can also earn athletic scholarship money for college.
It must be understood that the standards for an athletic scholarship at a school like Florida State are much higher than the standards at a school competing in a lower-tier conference. The demonstrated success of certain coaches creates demand to be a part of those programs. Demand drives up the “cost” of getting into the programs. In these cases, the standards for a scholarship may turn out to be extraordinarily high. The vast majority of DI and DII programs, however, provide extensive scholarship opportunities for females coming out of high school cross country and track and field programs.
If the first school you’re interested in doesn’t make an offer, there are many other schools out there with the academic programs you’re interested in. Keep knocking on doors. Keep filling out prospect athlete questionnaires at schools that have what you want in a college. Be willing to make a few phone calls.
This point would apply equally to men as to women, but you should understand the pecking order of scholarship offers. Most schools will target certain recruits and make offers to those recruits, giving them some sort of limited time frame to respond. Until those athletes respond (and there may be two or three layers of these athletes), the offers extended to those targeted athletes typically tie up a large portion of the available scholarships at that school.
If you do not have an offer before National Letter of Intent signing day, it does not necessarily mean you will not get an offer from that school. It does, however, mean you’re not at the top of their list of recruits. Nevertheless, the coach should be good enough to explain a little of where you stand to you and give you some indication of when they might be able to make an offer, if they’re able to make an offer at all.
College coaches who fail to exercise this basic level of human decency have turned off a great many more athletes, parents, and high school coaches than they know. Most of us are okay with knowing we’re not at the top of someone’s list for athletic scholarship–an athletic scholarship offer is not a proposal for marriage. Most of us, however, are not okay with being strung along. Unfortunately, some college coaches string prospects along.
If you’ve been in contact with a program, have had a conversation or two with the coach about running for them, perhaps even made a visit, and you’ve heard nothing about a scholarship amount by the first week in February, you should either a) prepare yourself to be content to walk on, or b) figure no offer is coming and direct your hopes elsewhere. The college coach should already have told you that in a diplomatic sort of way, but some don’t.
For students willing to push out the date of a college commitment, many scholarship offers are routinely made late in a student’s senior year. I’ve received numerous phone calls and e-mails in the April/May time frame inquiring if we have any quality athletes in our program who’ve not yet committed to a school. In some cases, the amount of scholarship money still on the table has been rather substantial.
On a final note, several high school track and field/cross country athletes turn to recruiting services for help finding scholarship offers. There is little doubt that reputable recruiting services can generate offers, often multiple offers, for many athletes. It should be understood going in, however, that most of those offers tend to come from lower-tier programs that generally have difficulty filling their allotments of available scholarships.
There are undoubtedly many cases where the particular schools and athletes turned out to be great matches. In other cases, however, the match may be more problematic. In any case, be willing to seriously investigate the opportunities for you at both the school itself and within its track and field program when considering a scholarship offer generated through a recruiting service.
I’m going to go out on a limb and say that for most readers of this article (and series) the most important two sentences that Alan shared with you are the following, “It’s a cold, hard fact of life that a lower percentage of female than male high school track and field athletes want to go on to compete in college. This situation creates opportunity, and lots of it, for the women who do want to compete.”
Why is that? Because high school coaches and college coaches see this reality every day: some very talented, very accomplished young women are not interested in competing collegiately. This fact is one of the big reasons why Alan’s examples of a woman who runs a 5k in the 24s in cross country or a woman who runs in the 13s in the 100m are offered athletic scholarships.
The other big reason has to do with the trickle down effect from DI to all of the other divisions. Because there are so many scholarships for women’s track and field at the DI level, but fewer women interested in taking them, the level of performance needed to earn a scholarship at an NAIA school or a junior college is much lower than most high school coaches, families, and students expect.
While Alan didn’t mention NAIA schools or junior colleges by name, the reality is that many of those schools need bodies for their rosters and if a family is simply looking for the most affordable way to help their daughter get a college education they should consider contacting these schools.
That’s the biggest point I wanted to add to Alan’s discussion, that the reason there are more scholarship offers made to women – both national caliber women and women who are varsity level on their team, but not state or national caliber – is a function of both the number of scholarships and that some of the best athletes aren’t interested in pursuing track and field in college.
With that said, I’d like to reinforce some more of Alan’s comments. If you’ve taken an official visit to a school and the school won’t tell you what amount of scholarship they want to offer you, then you need to move on to the next school.
Don’t dwell on it, just move on.
In terms of the timing, a program should be able to tell you two weeks before the signing date, though I’d hear them out if there are odd circumstances and they need to wait until 10 days out or a week out because your offer may go up.
Why would that happen?
Let’s say the school is recruiting you and they are also recruiting the consensus best runner in the country. They’re obviously offering the other athlete a full, yet they say they really want you, but all they have left is 50%. In that scenario they might say, “We actually think you’re worth 75% to our program and if The Best Runner in the Country says no to us, we’d like to offer you 75%. Can you give us until _____ to find if The Best Runner in the Country is coming, and if she says no’ – which we hope she doesn’t – we’ll bump up your offer.”
They’re being honest – they want the stud on a full and you on 50%, but if the stud says no then they’ll take 25% of it and give it to you for a total of 75%. So, there’s an example where you should be patient.
But, again, if you took an official visit and can’t get the school to discuss a scholarship you need to take at as a no and move on. And you should have had some general idea of what they were going to be able to offer you before you took the official visit.
It’s very common for programs to have money left at the end of the year, i.e. during the outdoor track season. If a school comes calling that time of the year, I wouldn’t hold it against them that they weren’t contacting you in the fall.
For instance, if you’re a 400m/800m runner who is running well in track but only ran as the third runner on your cross country team, it makes sense that you didn’t get the attention in the fall that you are now getting in the spring.
Now, you might be thinking, “They’re only calling me because someone else told them no.” True, but who cares? They are talking to you now, and they’re considering offering you a scholarship, an option you didn’t have in the fall. I think you should view that as a positive.
Alan talked about programs stringing families along. He’s right, this does happen. But families have also been known to string college programs along, especially at the highest level (i.e. the best athletes in the country). I was fortunate to work in environments that were honest with families and for the most part families were honest with us, yet every once in a while an athlete can’t narrow their choices down to three, or ideally two, schools.
My statement to families is that you’re leading at least two schools on when you are telling five schools that you’re interested. Get two schools off your list and let those two programs move on with their recruiting efforts, allowing them to talk to families who themselves may feel like they’re being led on.
Those schools are no doubt recruiting other people, yet they can’t talk scholarship money because they don’t know if you’ll be taking a scholarship or not.
I think this is where college coaches sometimes come off as evasive, because they can’t fully disclose to each family what they’re offering the other families. Yet, for the college coach, that’s the game theory that’s going on – maximizing your most valuable resource, scholarships, while waiting on the decisions of seventeen-year-olds before you can make your next move.
This is the reason I used to say, “The second best thing we can hear is no.” I viewed it as a binary exercise where we needed to get to either yes or no as efficiently and gracefully as we could so we could move on to the next person on our list. And, if you’re being recruited right now, you need to remember this – if you’re in some sort of contact with ten schools you will end up telling nine of them No.
If that sounds difficult, that’s okay because it is, yet you will have to do that.
Okay, technically you don’t have to say no. You could not answer your phone or not respond to emails. That’s not what you want to do and I’m convinced it’s a rare athlete who takes that out and ends up being an accomplished collegiate athlete.
As you can you guess, life is easy of you’re a girl and are in the top ten individuals in the country in cross country or top three or four in your event in track and field. Not only is virtually every school offering you a full ride, but the coaches are waiting on you to tell them yes or no.
But if you’re a 57.00 400m runner or a 2:14 800m runner with killer test scores and a near-perfect GPA, this process is a bit messy. Small schools at the DII and NAIA are willing to offer you a lot of scholarship money, even full rides, yet academically you’re not interested. The big DI state schools may or may not want you to walk on, even though you’d love to be there academically. You can barely get into the prestigious DI private schools academically, but you can run on the track team, which might be able to offer you a small athletic scholarship of 10%, yet the school is so expensive that your family probably can’t afford to send you there, even with the 10% offer.
The scenario above is too often real and my heart goes out to the families who are in this position as the path to a good fit for their daughter is not obvious. But, as a family, you control two important pieces of information that can and should be shared with coaches: What can you afford as a family and what amount of debt are you comfortable with for your daughter when she graduates?
A family cannot expect a coach to know these numbers yet these two numbers should be driving the recruiting process because, at the end of the day, a “good fit” is often the best school that the family can afford. While it would be nice if a good fit meant a program with a coach that the athlete worked well with and a team that was winning conference titles, the reality is that the student will probably feel stress if the family can barely afford the school she is attending. Conversely, the student will likely be frustrated if she’s on a full-ride athletic scholarship but the course load is easier than her high school AP classes.
I strongly encourage families to have candid conversations about this during the senior year so that parents and students can be honest with college coaches about what they need in scholarship money.
I hope this has been helpful and, as Alan said, please take my comments with a grain of salt.
Want to Run Faster? Want to stay Injury-Free? Join the newsletter and get my free eBook - The Runner's Stop Doing List.