Tuesday Tip: How Common is a "Full Ride"

After taking a couple of weeks off to take a look at WHO the top recruits are, the Tuesday Tip is back. This week we turn to the Holy Grail of college swimming – the scholarship, specifically the “Full Ride.” At the very least, nearly every parent has, in the back of their mind, that all of these long weekends spent at meets, money spent on club dues, travel, goggles, and the latest new suit, will be worth it when little Betsy Backstroker or Frankie Freestyler gets an athletic scholarship.

Sorry to burst your bubble mom and dad, but you need to start making catch-up contributions to your 529 Plan.

Oh, but lets hear it from the coaches themselves: “Full scholarships are very uncommon.”

“It is rare.”

“Very, very rare.”

“Not real common.”

Why is this? It is a result of scholarship limits imposed on teams by the NCAA. Division I programs may award a maximum of 9.9 men’s and 14.0 women’s swimming scholarships. Division II programs can provide up to 8.1 for each gender while Division III institutions may not provide any athletic aid. Programs that offer the maximum are said to be “fully-funded”, but even that is a bit misleading – slightly more than half of the 135 Division I men’s programs are fully-funded while nearly two-thirds of the 190 women’s teams are.

With 24-28 athletes on each program, simple arithmetic will tell you that the “Fulls” are few and far between. Considering coaches are judged on the performance of their teams, it’s no surprise that scholarships are awarded on performance. “The rule of thumb is: the better the team, the harder it is to get money,” explains Brigham Young women’s coach Stan Crump. “Fulls are tough to get, but easier as the teams get weaker.”

In the SEC and Big Ten, two of the most elite conferences, the standards are high.

On the men’s side, “If you are not in the top 8 at nationals or an outstanding high school short course swimmer,” explains Florida’s Gregg Troy, “[a full] is probably not a reality.”

Women “need to be a top 8 NCAA corer or very close talking through the door,” explains Ohio State’s Bill Dorrenkott explains, “and even then they need to be able to contribute significantly on relays.”

While Coach Troy isn’t known to mince words, but a rival major-conference coach was even more direct: “We never give a full scholarship to a high school senior. It’s a $110,000 gamble on a 18 year-old kid.” The coach then went onto explain, “Internationals [foreign athletes] are another story. They’re older, more experienced and you need to pay full to get them.”

They need to be a top 8 NCAA scorer or very close walking through the door and even then they need to be able to contribute significantly on relays.”

Denver’s Brian Schrader also noted the difference between men and women, but adds that “Recruits who are at an NCAA qualifying level are offered very substantial amounts of scholarship money …whether they are male or female.”

Dorrenkott broke down the numbers a bit further explaining that “A good scholarship for US National multiple event qualifiers is 30-50% for men and 40-60% for women.” Not a NCAA qualifier as a freshman? You might be as a sophomore, and oftentimes coaches will reward those gains. As SMU’s Eddie Sinnott notes, “At SMU we have a saying “If you perform for us we will perform for you” and take that very seriously.”

Gary Kinkead of Indianapolis, and NC State’s Brooks Teal echo the team-building concept. Kinkead explains, ““Championships are not won with 1-3 GREAT swimmers, but with depth and the best way to have depth is to divide up the available scholarships among those talented athletes that you feel can produce the greatest number of championship and consolation finalists.”

Teal adds that most schools “will NOT use more than one, perhaps two or three full scholarships” on men. For the women, it’s “very rare, though not unheard of, to have more than four women on full scholarship on one squad.”

Breaking up these scholarships not only benefits the team, it also create opportunities for swimmers to train and compete at an elite level. Sinnott explains “Anyone with NCAA times coming out of high school should expect some full scholarship offers.” He adds, however that, “Anyone wanting to go to a top 10 school or ‘want to be’ school should expect to pay some of the cost of school in order to have the best possible team.”

Hawaii’s Vic Wales, for instance, doesn't offer Full Rides. He tends to offer 90-94% “which will cover all the costs but cuts down on the extra ‘spending money.” By holding back a little on each scholarship, Wales explains, they are able to build a larger, stronger team. Five and ten percent here and there can “free up that little bit of money for student-athletes who aren't quite at that National level yet.”

 The average women's swimming scholarship is roughly $9,500 while the typical men's swimming scholarship is approximately $6,500. 

The New York Times’s Bill Pennington published a series of articles chronicling the scarcity of athletic aid. The Times found that the average scholarship award for sports other than football and basketball was just $8,707. In women’s swimming, the average award is slightly more than that while in men’s swimming the amount is closer to $6,500. The bottom line – with spiraling tuition that athletic scholarship might cover a third of attendance.

The reality is there are more collegiate swimmers receiving no athletic aid than there are swimmers who are. What about the experience of participating on an intercollegiate team? What about the lessons learned from the sport?

Ultimately, the scholarship, rather than being a means to a college education or justification for the weekends spent at meets or thousands spent on ‘technical’ suits, can be seen as icing on the cake. Says Southern Illinois’ Rick Walker: “It should be an honor to be offered anything at all.

< hr size="8" color="#0000ff" noshade> Have a recruiting question you’ve always wanted to ask a college coach? E-mail us. Want to ask a coach in person? Make plans for the latest CollegeSwimming.com Recruit Seminar set for August 3 in Minneapolis. Look for registration information next week.