A lot of time on this site is devoted to cycling and running with only occasional references to my athletic life prior to triathlon. But before all of this Cheap Athlete mumbo-jumbo there were about 10 years of a skinny, Speedo-clad dude with greenish hair swimming countless laps of backstroke. There were also a couple of years of beer-fueled laziness and 2-hour commutes but we’ll just gloss over that part. No, you didn’t watch me on TV at the Olympics nor did I reach the NCAA Championship or Senior National levels. I was an average-at-best collegiate swimmer but was able to earn a Division 1 scholarship to help fund my degree.
That degree, of course, was Economics and as someone who endlessly annoys his wife with a thorough assessment of the opportunity costs of every-single-flipping-decision it only makes sense to take a look back at my swimming career and decide if it was economically worth it.
Why am I going there?
Make no mistake, I’m endlessly thankful for having been a swimmer. My wife and I swam at the same college, my first 2 jobs were through swimming connections and about 90% of my best friends today were some sort of high school or university teammate of mine. I co-captained a team that brought home our University’s first swimming conference championship and thinking about our 9-point victory over the conference bully still sends chills down my spine. These are events that have shaped who I am today and I am happy with how things have turned out. So why hop in a DeLorean and see what could have been?
OK, so then what?
I want to look at the basic economics of the college athletic scholarship. Why is that? Because I live in New Jersey and New Jersyians are clinically out-of-their-mind when it comes to colleges. If you are invited to any sort of function in Jersey be prepared for the conversation to take the inevitable turn toward schools. I don’t have children and graduated college 13 years ago yet I constantly find myself insulted when listening to folks prognosticate the life of ruin their children will lead if they end up at one of those “bad” colleges.
All around me I see parents mindlessly funneling money into $40,000 per year high schools, piano lessons and soccer/hockey/swimming/whatever practice in hopes of getting their kids into a “good” school or earning a scholarship. Since this is an athletic blog I’ll skip the “I went to an unfancy college and turned our alright” and “The small probability that your kid is actually a genius” articles and provide an emotion-free deep dive into athletic scholarships.
In 2016 there were about 7.4mm high school and 545k college athletes which equates to about 7% that move on to play in college. Yes, plenty of kids COULD play in college but elect not to but this should provide an idea of the probability that your mini-me 1) is able to and 2) chooses to play in college.
Further, of the 7% or so that play in college about 29% will attend Division 3 schools which do not offer athletic scholarships.
Of the 71% of college athletes that are eligible to receive scholarships the NCAA estimates that roughly 58% receive some sort of athletic aid (avg of 56% Div. 1 and 61% Div. 2). That narrows it down to a whopping 3.0% of high school student athletes that ultimately end up receiving athletic scholarships.
Obviously that number does not represent all the kids who could receive an athletic scholarship. For example, I could have walked on to a bigger program but chose to join a mid-major on scholarship. But it’s very conceivable that a non-scholarship athlete from a big-time team or Div. 3 school could receive some money somewhere. But that 3.0% represents the percentage of kids who are good enough to compete in college and elect to do so at a school that will offer them money.
Let’s put this into a little bit of perspective
Since this is a college-focused article it only seems fitting to break out the old bell curve that I learned about in so many of my college classes.
This curve represents all of the high school athletes and I’ve marked the 97% percentile. The red section indicates the 3% of high school athletes that will end up receiving some sort of athletic aid in college. It’s a very small portion of the curve, ey?
To provide further context let’s look at the acceptance rates for the various Ivy league institutions. (Source Ivy Coach)
That’s right, there’s a better chance that your kid will get accepted into Harvard then end up with an athletic scholarship.
What is the average athletic scholarship?
So let’s take a look a the amounts these 3.0% of high school athletes are receiving. The simple average of the 2016 average athletic scholarship by institution comes out to $19,766 for men and $23,861 for women which, multiplied by 4, is about $80k.
Not bad! But let’s break that down a little.
- 42% of men’s athletic scholarships are awarded to Football and Basketball which should be no surprise to any college athlete ever.
- If you remove Basketball and Football the average men’s scholarship drops to 16,518.
- The two highest average scholarships are for women’s Gymnastics and Ice Hockey but only make up about 3% of total women’s scholarships awarded.
- Track & Field, Soccer and Baseball/Softball make up the majority of non Football or Basketball scholarships.
Not let’s break out the bell curve again and use my scholarship to provide some context. I earned a $4,000 per year scholarship which equates to about $5,848 in today’s dollars. If we assume a normal distribution then, by definition, 50% of scholarships awarded will be less than the average. The mythical “full-rides” exist for the Katie Ledecky’s of the world and most of us will end up with some flavor of a partial scholarship.
But any scholarship is better than no scholarship, right?
Yes, some money is generally better than no money but what is the major difference between an athletic and academic scholarship?
That whole needing to practice and compete thing which is a massive time commitment and can eat into your time to, you know, study and stuff.
Now the NCAA has set forth requirements for in and out of season training but anyone who has ever competed in a college sport knows that these requirements are on the low-end. Staying after practice to work on skills, traveling to way-the-heck-away and showing up to practice 30 minutes early are all not included in the 20 hour per week mandate. And you don’t earn overtime scholarship.
But for the sake of the article I’ll stick to the guidelines and will lay out my general assumptions here:
- Maximum of 20 hours per week of practice in season
- Maximum of 8 hours per week of practice out of season
- Season is 20.5 weeks long with 12 weeks of offseason
- A swim meet accounts for 8 hours of time
- 5 dual meets and 2 3-day invitational meets per season
- Assume 1 training trip per year of college ~$500
- Club swimming prior to college at ~$1,300 (dues, hotels, gas, suits, etc.)
- I could have earned $7.50 per hour lifeguarding
The majority of my assumptions here are quite conservative. For example, we frequently would travel 5-8 hours just to get to a meet which would take all day and then require another long drive home. And the $1,300 per year for club swimming can easily go over that if you account for all the fees, travel meets and gas to and from practice but that seems a reasonable enough estimate.
OK, let’s do some math
At the time I was earning $7.50 per hour as a lifeguard so we’ll just assume that as the opportunity cost of every hour spent swimming during college. Had I worked the same hours (while still going to school) instead of swam I could have earned $15,600 after tax which is about equal to the $16,000 I earned via scholarship. But then there were 4 training trips ($2,000) and my parents, being good parents and all, traveled to a lot of my meets which we’ll estimate at another $500 per year and drops my scholarship value to $12,000.
And then there were 6 years or so of club swimming which cost my parents somewhere in the range of $7,800 which further decreases the value of my scholarship to $4,200. I won’t even take this analysis as far as calculating what could have been earned on that $1,300 per year or how much I could have earned by working during high school because I think you’ve got the idea now.
In order just to break even over the part time job I would have had to earn about $7,000 per year which equates to $10,228 in today’s dollars.
So what are you trying to say here?
I was part of the 3.0% of high school athletes who earn a college athletic scholarship which, on a cost-adjusted basis, came out to a total value of $4,200 when all was said and done. Even for the 3.0% who do earn scholarships, a large portion of the awards won’t cover the cost it took to earn them and we’re looking at less than 2% that actually experience a financial gain.
Yes, some kids will use athletics as a bargaining chip to squeak into an institution they have no business being in but we’re looking at a tiny portion of the population and that should not be the only reason for schlepping your kid to the pool every day.
So was it a bad decision then?
No way! I’m a big believer in path dependency and who I am today is the direct result of all the events that I’ve experienced throughout my life. There’s no doubt that you can learn a bunch of stuff from being part of a team but you don’t need to play competitive sports to understand the importance of exercise and you can easily build a strong network by joining a fraternity or by, you know, talking to people.
However, my parents realized early on that I enjoyed the sport and encouraged me to pursue it which was just awesome of them. I have a lifetime of memories because of swimming and highly doubt that I’d meet up at campus every year to drink beers and reminisce over the good ole days of working at bookstore or whatever. If your kid is passionate about a sport then I recommend you allow them to pursue it as the non-economic benefits can far outweigh the costs.
But what about all the parents forcing their children into sports because they think it’ll end up in some sort of scholarship? Or the parents that will literally move their family just so their kid can train with a better coach? And what about all the private coaches, expensive gear and training camps that are paid for in hopes for that sweet, sweet college moola?
Well, there’s a good chance it ain’t gonna pay off for ya.