You may have heard more than a few parents talk to their children about their potential to achieve a sports scholarship. A father pulling his son aside to give him a pep talk that includes “pull this game off and the scouts will come running” – this kind of conversation has become routine in the world of youth sports where parents and players alike have bright aspirations of the future where they’re playing sports in college, completely paid for.

However, let’s talk about reality. It’s never fun to have to shoot down a child’s dream, but sports are competitive in more ways than just one team beating another. As children age through recreational leagues, the lure of private coaching and upscale academies promising improvement is getting shinier.

If we’re being completely honest, the number of scholarships handed out for sports in college is lower than you’re estimating – by a long shot.

The Harsh Truth

Here are some cold, hard facts: about 2% of high school seniors will get a scholarship to an NCAA Division I or II institution, and the average scholarship to any of these schools is less than $18,000 ($2.5 billion divided amongst 150,000 student athletes). This may pay for a year if you’re lucky, but when you go to a big university, or out-of-state as would often be the case, this money doesn’t stretch very far.

College athletes still don’t get paid to play, either, despite furious debate about the issue. Thus, a student athlete who is even lucky enough to get an NCAA scholarship is stuck with that $11K, work money and whatever their parents could scrape together and save up.

If lucky enough to make the team, soon lurks the ghost of crippling injuries, or – every year – a new crop of players. Faster, stronger, better, that might knock the child off the team. While pulling a scholarship is rare, most are on a yearly renewal cycle (NCAA now authorizes multi-year scholarships but most must still be renewed yearly). This is quite a stress to put on anyone, never mind someone who also needs to keep up grades and learning a job (the odds of a high school player continuing in the NBA are 1:1860, onto the NFL 1:603, according to stats).

This raises another problem as well: many parents believe that a child good enough at sports will get a full ride. While there is a risk this thought process might also entice them to save less for college, it mostly forces them to overspend on equipment, training and supporting their player until they reach the magic threshold. Don’t forget the risk of exhausting not only the player, but the entire family, during the journey.

Some Good News

There is a bright side, however. While a student athlete may not have their college paid for them or ever see national team recognition, schools all over the country dream of having strong sports programs. What makes a strong sports program? Strong athletes.

Because of this, universities are much more likely to accept a student-athlete or a student with some athletic experience than those without (see our other blog posts about the academic benefits of sports). This doesn’t mean they’ll be getting a scholarship or extra perks, but it does mean they’ll likely get fewer rejection letters in the mail.

Parents of student athletes often make the mistake of pushing too much sports time onto their children in hopes of getting these “pie in the sky” scholarships. Once that pressure is off and their acceptance rates are raised, they have a better opportunity to find a career path they feel passionate about, and sports will have opened a new career path for them (be it in sports law, sports medicine, sports marketing…)

Our advice

Be here to support your child, not to realize a dream through them. Very few will get a scholarship, even less will go on to play beyond college. If you are here to encourage and give your athlete the best development you can possibly afford, they will be better adults for it. But be straight with them about their odds, and develop their academic and community “muscles”. There are many other scholarship to apply for there. All the while, sports have helped them achieve their career goals.