Athletic Scholarship for Div. 3 Athlete?

Question: I’m about to start my senior year in high school, and my coach said that I am good enough to play Division 3 Softball in college. What does this mean and how do I get a scholarship?

Colleges and universities that belong to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (better known as the NCAA) typically offer sports at either the Division 1, Division 2, or Division 3 level. Division 1 is the most selective and Division 3 the least … but, even so, there’s a big jump between being a good high school athlete and being qualified to play at college on any level, even Div. 3.

NCAA rules prohibit athletic scholarships at Division 3 colleges. You’ll have to go to Div. 1 or 2 for softball dough (more on that in a minute). But, if you qualify for need-based financial aid or some other form of merit scholarship (e.g., for academics, arts, etc.) then you may indeed receive $$ to attend a Div. 3 school … you just can’t get the money specifically for softball.

Note, however, that some Div. 3 colleges do tend to “sweeten the pot” for athletic prospects. For instance, let’s say your family qualifies for need-based financial aid. Instead of giving you an aid “package” that is mostly loan and some grant (the good stuff that you don’t need to pay back), you may find that, as a sought-after softball player, your aid package turns out to be all–or mostly–grant money.

If you’re an especially strong Div. 3 player, then you might even be a contender at some Div. 1 or 2 institutions, too, where athletic scholarships are permissible. If so, you’ll have to register with the NCAA and make sure that your course selection, grades, and standardized test scores meet certain minimal standards. For more information about these standards, read about NCAA eligibility here: http://web1.ncaa.org/ECWR2/NCAA_EMS/NCAA.jsp

Note, however, that scholarship money for sports is hard to come by–only the most talented athletes will qualify–and even if a coach is considering you for an athletic scholarship, most of these scholarships are not the “free rides” that we all hear about on TV or through the rumor mill. Many coaches are given a fixed amount of scholarships but then may divide them among several recruits, so the result is that no single player receives more than a few thousand dollars. Thus, if a coach expresses an interest in you and mentions the possibility of scholarship help, don’t hesitate to ask whether you’re looking at serious bucks or just pizza money.

To find a list of colleges with NCAA softball teams, go to: http://web1.ncaa.org/onlineDir/exec/sponsorship Note that this list indicates if the program is in Division 1, 2 or 3. There are also other colleges that are not affiliated with the NCAA but do offer softball as well.

To find more softball schools, use the College Board “Matchmaker” at http://collegesearch.collegeboard.com/search/adv_typeofschool.jsp Under the “Sports & Activities” heading, select “Softball” in the “Women” column, and then, down below, you have the option to narrow down your search to Div. 1, 2, or 3 (and also intramural).

Keep in mind that, even if the Division 3 colleges can’t offer scholarships for athletic prowess, what they may be able to provide is a boost in your admissions odds, if you’re a promising recruit. In other words, if you find that you’re a borderline candidate at a top-choice school, the coach’s clout may make a difference in your admissions verdict. So, as soon as you discover any colleges—at any level–that interest you, feel free to contact the coach to express your interest. At the Div. 1 and Div. 2 levels, the NCAA has strict rules that govern the sort of exchanges that coaches can have with recruits, but at Div. 3 colleges, those rules are laxer.

A final thing to keep in mind is this: Some Division 3 coaches are straight shooters and some are not. At Div. 1 and 2 colleges, prospective students often sign a “Letter of Intent” which helps the coaches know which athletes are sure to matriculate. At Div. 3 schools, however, it’s hard for a coach to assess which players will eventually enroll. So, it’s common for coaches to suck up to all potential athletes with the hope that at least a couple will show up in September. So be wary of promises made by Division 3 coaches. The nice guy who tells you that you’re a “likely four-year starter” in December may forget about you entirely by the following fall, if his recruiting season has been successful. So be sure to query coaches about team size, returning players (and their positions), how many players will be cut after try-outs, etc. This will help you to determine if the coach is serious about you or maybe leading you on.

Good luck with your senior year and you college search. I hope you find a lot of colleges that are in the ballpark for you and at least one that may even be a homerun. :-)