College Scholarships: Not Always the Pot of Gold

College Scholarships: Not Always the Pot of Gold

College Scholarships: Not Always the Pot of Gold

In March, Runner’s World On-Line ( featured a series of opinion pieces by running experts such as Hal Higdon and Craig Masback (among others) regarding the merits of collegiate competition in the long-term process of developing American distance runners. At the center of the issue was Michigan’s own Dathan Ritzenheim, whose outstanding high school career now includes a bronze medal at the 2001 World Cross-Country Championships. In essence, Higdon argued that collegiate competition was not always in the best interest of the athlete’s long-term development, while Masback countered that the evidence indicates it is actually working quite well.

The issue is complicated on many levels, the most notable being that it is difficult to categorize any subject which involves people and personalities. A system that works well for one runner isn’t necessarily going to work well for another. Each athlete (and coach) is an experiment of one.

I found the debate particularly interesting because I’ve always been a bit skeptical of athletic scholarships. I’m by no means completely against them and in fact I have several friends who probably could not have completed college (particularly at an expensive school like Michigan) without the benefit of such aid. I also have several friends who were thrilled at the opportunity to hone their athletic skills "on the school’s dime" and enjoyed tremendous success both athletically and academically.

I myself did not have a scholarship at Michigan (not talented enough!) and my husband attended a college, Bucknell, which does not offer athletic scholarships. Yet we’ve both had experience running with scholarship athletes: me during my time at Michigan, of course; and my husband when he attended graduate school at the University of Illinois and would occasionally work out with the Illini cross-country team.

We both tend to view scholarships as a double-edged sword, and I, at least, feel that there is a bit too much emphasis on them at the high-school level. There is no denying that a full scholarship, particularly to a school such as Michigan with its $15,000+ (in-state!) price tag is a terrific deal, and I certainly can’t criticize parents for jumping at the chance when the college offers to pick up the tab for their child’s education. It’s also a wonderful psychological boost for a high school kid to know that a college thinks highly enough of him/her to offer a scholarship. But I think that some students, parents and high school coaches err in not looking past the initial allure and giving serious consideration to the responsibility that accepting an athletic scholarship entails.

A scholarship is a contract. In return for financial assistance, the student agrees to represent the school in athletic competition. Simple enough, right? And, of course, the student is also expected to attend all practices and participate in all athletic competitions as health and fitness allow. Completely obvious, yes?

I would urge parents and athletes to think a bit more carefully about what the above paragraph implies. Not only is the student expected to structure her life around her sport, she is contractually obligated to do so (one of my teammates at Michigan referred to it as "indentured servitude"). While any coach worth his salt is going to make the welfare of his athletes the #1 priority, the bottom line is, coaches are hired to produce winning teams. A scholarship athlete is expected to contribute to that success and, one might argue, is being paid to do so. And as most scholarships are now one-year renewable contracts, rather than the previous four-year commitment, the athlete is under continuous pressure to perform, lest he fail his "yearly review."

There are also definite psychological aspects to accepting a scholarship. I had two teammates at Michigan — scholarship recipients — who spent the better part of a year battling illness and injury, and both were in fear of losing their scholarships (particularly when non-scholarship teammates started to step up and fill the slack). That fear, of course, only added to the stress already caused by the injuries (not to mention the continual stress of academic demands). Another of my teammates, tired and burned out, desperately wanted to skip the outdoor track season. It was her senior year, she was taking a full course load, and she had met the man who would eventually become her husband. She didn’t want to compete, didn’t want to travel, and certainly didn’t want to spend three hours every afternoon at practice, but owing to her scholarship she was required to do so. She muddled through, but by the end of the season she was regularly dropping out of races and just going through the motions in practice. After our final meet she told me she felt "liberated," and she did not run — even for pleasure — for quite a while afterwards.

I don’t want to sound like a harbinger of doom, and I certainly don’t want to imply that accepting a scholarship is an automatic ticket to purgatory. The vast majority of athletes sail happily through their four years and continue in their sport after graduation. And any good, caring coach is going to be flexible with his athletes to ensure that they remain healthy and enthusiastic. Every athlete, scholarship or not, is going to have some rocks in his path. But for some students, the added pressure of being a "scholarship athlete" can turn those rocks into boulders.

If I were a high school coach, and I had an athlete who was scholarship material, I would sit down with the student and her parents and ask the following questions:

1. Is the student truly motivated and eager to continue running at the college level, or is she flattered by the scholarship offer and thus feels obligated to accept it (i.e. "you don’t turn down a scholarship")?
2. Has the student spoken with current college athletes, and does she have a realistic idea of what competing at the college level involves?
3. Have the parents talked seriously with their child about her goals and desires, or are they focused primarily on the financial benefit?
4. Does the student have a good sense of self-worth, is she confident, and does she have the maturity to successfully handle any possible setbacks (illness, injury)?
5. Is the college a good match - athletically, academically and socially - for the student? Sending a student to the wrong school just because it offered a scholarship is like buying the wrong-sized shoe just because it was on sale — both will result in misery.
6. Has the student spoken candidly with the college coach about how injuries, burn-out and academic demands are handled? Is the coach willing to be flexible and accommodating if/when such situations arise?

Some former scholarship athletes may read this and question whether I’m in the position to be critical of a situation that I never personally experienced. It’s a legitimate point. But I have nearly 20 years of anecdotal evidence, both pro and con, upon which I’ve formulated my opinion.

Each person is an experiment of one, and each athlete’s experience is going to be different. And scholarships aren’t carved into stone. I’ve known students who relinquished scholarships after a year or two, realizing "this isn’t for me." But it takes a lot of self-confidence and courage to do that (not to mention financial resources). I would simply urge parents and students to look past the hype and the recruiting for a serious examination of the underlying obligations.