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College scholarships: harder to win than the lottery

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In advance of Feb. 3′s National Signing Day, college football’s orgasm to the child porn that is the recruiting watch, the Houston Chronicle’s Jenny Dial asked a question. Just what are your kid’s chances of getting a scholarship, anyway?

If you didn’t read her story (or see it on Youth Sports Parents — hat tip your way), then in the afterglow of signing day, with the sweet throb of the fax machine still faintly pulsating, you’ll get an instant cold shower from her answer: almost nil.

You would think it’s generally understood that the odds are long. But Dial’s excellent piece makes you wonder if, as a means of future earnings potential, parents should buy lottery tickets instead of paying big bucks for travel teams and private lessons. The chance of success is about the same, and so is the usual justification — you can’t win if you don’t play.

How do we know the odds are so long? Dial took numbers from the National Federation of State High School Associations on school sports participation, then took numbers from the NCAA on the number of scholarships awarded to Division I athletes, and did the math. The numbers might not be 100 percent accurate: they don’t count kids who play at elite club levels only (increasingly common), and they don’t count kids who might have gotten scholarships to NCAA Division II or NAIA institutions. But those figures would probably not move the needle much one way or the other.

So, without further adieu, the percentage of high school athletes in the class of 2008 (the latest figures available) who got Division I athletic scholarships nationwide, in alphabetical order by sport:

Baseball: 0.6

Boys basketball: 0.7

Girls basketball: 0.9

Boys cross country/track and field: 0.5

Girls cross country/track and field: 0.9

Football: 1.4

Boys golf: 0.6

Girls golf: 1.6

Boys soccer: 0.4

Girls soccer: 1

Softball: 0.7

Boys swimming and diving: 0.8

Girls swimming and diving: 1.2

Boys tennis: 0.6

Girls tennis: 1.1

Volleyball: 0.8

Boys wrestling: 0.3

Man, I think you get better odds from the lottery ticket.

[youtubevid id="tN5V8cQ2DAk"]

Your odds are 1 in 300 for this lottery.

Dial also talked to parents to see what they spent on sports. Golf parents spent the most: about $11,000 per year. A lot of sports fell in the $2,000-$5,000 range. Football parents spent the least, about $300 a year for offseason expenses. Football is relatively cheap because, unlike every other high school sport, you’re also not duty-bound to join a travel or elite team in addition to your school team in order to get college recruiters’ attention. However, you can rack up expenses paying for all-star camps and Nike-sponsored combines that require you to jet around nationwide to get the attention of your top football schools.

And for what? Not only are the chances of a scholarship tiny, but Dial’s survey included partial scholarships. Every athlete is not getting a four-year free ride. In most sports (mainly, outside of football and basketball), just about everyone is getting only half, or one-quarter, or less covered in tuition expenses — if they’re getting a scholarship at all to play.

This is not to say that you should immediately dump your kid’s golf clubs in the nearest water hazard. If you and your child love the youth sports lifestyle, and you’ve got the money to spend, then have fun. But if you’ve got a hard-on for a college scholarship, chances are that on National Signing Day, you’re going to be limp with disappointment.

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