When choosing a school, whether or not the university can offer a scholarship and how big that scholarship might be are critical questions for prospects. Once a prospect starts being offered athletic scholarships, the ability of a school to offer a scholarship is often the first requirement for the prospect to consider that school. Walk-on opportunities might be offered, and can be attractive to some prospects, but normally scholarships drive the discussion.
Whether you can get financial aid or even whether you can get an athletic scholarship is much more complex than simply whether the team has an athletic scholarship available for you when you happen to graduate from high school. For no programs is this more important right now than the Penn State and Southern California football teams. Not to mention recruits who still aspire to play for those programs.
The NCAA has two basic scholarship limits: a limit on counters and a limit on equivalencies. It’s a bit circular, but a counter is a student-athlete who counts against scholarship limits. In equivalency sports, the scholarship limit is based on the total amount of athletic scholarships awarded to counters. In football, there is not just a limit on 85 scholarships per year, but also a limit on initial counters, that is athletes who are on scholarship for the first time. Initial counters are capped at 25.
Counters are normally any student-athlete who receives an athletic scholarship, partial or full. But in sports like football and basketball, counters also include any student-athlete who was recruited and who receives financial aid from the school. This is to prevent abuse by schools who might have “walk-ons” who were recruited then given “non-athletic” scholarships from the financial aid office.
In NCAA-speak, recruited does not mean what it normally means. A prospect is recruited for financial aid purposes if one of the following things happens:
- A coach has in-person contact with the prospect off-campus;
- The prospect takes an official visit to the campus; or
- The school sent the prospect a National Letter of Intent or other written athletic scholarship offer.
Because of this definition, there’s a lot of recruiting that can happen without a prospect being considered “recruited”:
- Coaches can evaluate prospects any number of times.
- Coaches can call prospects any number of times.
- Prospects can take unlimited unofficial visits to the campus.
- Coaches can make verbal scholarship offers to prospects.
So a prospect can be heavily recruited, in the traditional sense, without being considered recruited according to the NCAA. Knowing and managing your status as recruited or nonrecruited according to this definition is important to maximize financial aid opportunities. As we’ll see with PSU and USC, it will be doubly important for those programs.
Scholarships When No Scholarships Are Available
So if a school you’d like to play for has no scholarships available and simply walking on is not an option, how can you find a way onto the team? There’s a number of ways, both athletically and nonathletically related.
Non-Athletically Related Aid
In sports other than football and basketball, student-athletes who do not receive an athletic scholarship can receive non-athletically related aid without restriction. In football and basketball, to maximize the amount of non-athletic aid an athlete can receive, they must be non-recruited under the NCAA’s definition.
If an athlete is recruited and plays football or basketball, he or she may not receive institutional financial aid without becoming a counter and counting against the scholarship limits. Outside aid like federal Pell grants or state grants would be allowed, but the athlete could not receive any of the need and even academic aid a school offers.
To be a recruited athlete but still meet the definition of nonrecruited, athletes should focus their recruiting efforts with the coaching staff around phone calls and unofficial visits. If you let the coaching staff know you are interested in walking on provided you can get other aid, they will be careful to not change your status as recruited vs. nonrecruited. Also apply early and get your financial aid information like the FAFSA to the school as soon as possible to maximize the amount of aid you are eligible for.
Another option is to receive a scholarship later in your career. For many sports, that might mean walking on for a year before receiving an athletic scholarship. In football, the more common scenario is to walk on for two years rather than just one. The reason is after two years, a school can give an athletic scholarship to a walk-on without counting the scholarship against the limit of 25 initial counters, and instead count the scholarship against only the limit of 85 overall counters.
In general, prospects must take a coach at his or her word that they will be put on scholarship. However a prospect can ask for more certainty by signing a scholarship for a future year. Say you are being recruited for 2013–14. Once the signing period starts or once you arrive on campus, you could sign a scholarship for 2014–15, 2015–16 or any year within your eligibility. And with the new rules allowing multiyear scholarships, you could sign for all those future years. Remember in football or basketball, this would make you recruited, so be careful if you were planning on using other types of aid for the years you will walk on.
Counting in the Future
In football, an athlete generally counts as an initial counter in the academic year he first receives an athletic scholarship. The biggest exception is for midyear enrollees, where the school typically has some flexibility to push the initial counter back to the following year. But there is a rarer exception that could help athletes enrolling at any time.
An athlete can be put on scholarship and not be counted as an initial counter until the following year if:
- He was not recruited; and
- He signs the scholarship after the start of fall practice.
The athlete would count against the limit of 85 overall scholarships that year. But he would not count against the 25 initial counters until the following year. So an athlete enrolling in 2012–13 who uses this exception counts against the recruiting class of 2013–14. This can be a useful way to get a scholarship at a school which has run out of its initial counters for a year, but still have some of its 85 scholarships available.
These are not dirty tricks or cheating and athletes and schools should not think of them that way. They are ways to allow athletes to participate on the teams they want and still get help paying for their education even though a team has hit the scholarship limit for a certain year. And they are open to be used by schools like Penn State and USC who are facing scholarship reductions. If being a recruited scholarship athlete who signs a National Letter of Intent and gets his or her name in the paper is not that important to you, it opens up a number of options you should be ready to discuss with coaches.