NCAA Division II creates obstacles for returning athletes to receive scholarships

Westminster College athletes in their natural habitat. Though some people think college athletes have a full-ride scholarship, most student athletes have partial scholarships or nothing. Photo by Joshua Fisher.

Westminster College athletes in their natural habitat. Though some people think college athletes have a full-ride scholarship, most student athletes have partial scholarships or nothing. Photo by Joshua Fisher.

Many people believe that all college athletes who receive athletic scholarships receive a full-ride, but the truth is that students in the majority of college athletic programs receive only a partial athletic scholarship—if anything at all.

A full athletic scholarship covers tuition, course-related fees, room and board and books. A partial athletic scholarship covers only a portion of those expenses.

“In my first two years, there were around two girls that had full ride scholarships,” said Maddie Lewis, a senior neuroscience major and soccer player. “That was basically all the money that the program had, which means everyone else had little to none.”

Westminster College's new designation in NCAA Division II also creates barriers for student athletes to receive academic scholarships.

“NCAA Division II is a partial scholarship model, so there are limitations on what we can do as a institution,” said Shay Wyatt, director of Westminster athletics.

According to the NCAA, there are two different types of scholarships: head counts and full equivalency scholarships.

“As a Division II institution, we’re not required to give a full equivalency,” Wyatt said. “A full equivalency is the equivalent of the full cost of attendance.”

The main difference between head count sports and equivalency sports is that head count sports are guaranteed a specific amount of full-ride scholarships, while equivalency sports divide scholarship money into partial scholarships, according to the NCAA.

“Division I head count sports, like your football and basketball, all they can give is a full scholarship or no scholarship; they can’t break it up,” Wyatt said. “So really ours is just, okay, it’s an additional amount of scholarship money that a coach can add into a scholarship/financial aid package."

According to Westminster’s student athlete handbook, the Financial Aid Office oversees all financial aid—including athletic and institutional.

“We have to work collaboratively with our Financial Aid Office, so that’s a huge part of the process, just like it is for every student,” Wyatt said. “I would say every student here at the college goes through the same financial aid process that everybody does.”

Westminster has established a model which allows the majority of our sports to offer a limited number of partial athletic scholarships, according to the Westminster student athlete handbook. These awards are based upon recommendations made by the coaches of the specified sports.

Each team at Westminster is given a specific budget based of an array of variables like team size.

“Shay Wyatt gives us a budget that is used for scholarships," said Norman Parrish, the head coach of the men’s basketball team. "That’s the way it works—the same for every team."

After Wyatt gives coaches their budgets, they are responsible for managing the money and not overspending.

“We have a standard amount and we can’t over spend," said Josh Pittman, men’s soccer head coach. "If we over spend, then we have to find ways that we can fundraise that money."

If coaches need to come up with extra money for their team they often turn to fundraising.

“What’s becoming the new challenge for us is as we're developing the program we want to raise money, so when we find a player late in the game or if we want to help out our returning players, we’ll have the funds,” Pittman said.

Aside from the polices Westminster has about athletic scholarships, there is also a long-standing policy that dictates how much scholarship money a coach is allowed to give a returning player.

“I have asked for money, but it is difficult as a returner,” Lewis said. “The school only allows for a certain amount of money to be allotted to returning players, and I want to say that number is around $5,000, which means there is only $5,000 to be distributed among 20 plus players—while some freshman come in with $13,000 having never earned their spot on the field.”

"In my final three years playing, I was able to receive $2500," Lewis said. "And while this was better than nothing, it wasn’t enough to make a huge difference seeing as Westminster costs upwards of $30,000 a year and playing a sport makes it very hard to have a job to help with tuition. And for players like myself who pay for college on their own, that is a lot of loans."

Junior biology major Andrew Clayton said he has never seen a dime of athletic money throughout his four-year career, despite being a main contributor to their team.

“I did ask my former coach for extra scholarship money,” Clayton said “I was rejected because I was told that if I was given athletic money from the team, I would lose some of my academic scholarship.”

Getting an athletic scholarship from Westminster is often more difficult than it seems, Clayton said.

“I do think it is hard to get an athletic scholarship here at Westminster because the school does not have the student body size or funding to support athletics to the same degrees that larger schools do,” Clayton said. “Westminster's primary focus is on education, and therefore athletic scholarships aren't seen as a main concern.”

According to the NCAA, Division I and II schools provide more than $2.9 billion in athletic scholarships annually to more than 150,000 student-athletes, however only about two percent of high school athletes are awarded athletic scholarships to compete in college.

To put that in perspective there are about eight million students currently participating in high school athletics in the United States according to the NCAA. Around 480,000 of those athletes will complete as NCAA athletes, that means about six percent of high school athletes will compete at the colligate level.

Obtaining an athletic scholarship is no ordinary feat and Clayton suggests that there are things Westminster could improve to enhance their scholarship program.

“I think Westminster could do a better job with athletic scholarships by awarding athletes that succeed on and off the field,” Clayton said. “This allows for students to be recognized for their hard work and give them motivation to continue to work harder and harder in their studies and in their sport.”

If a student athletes gets hurt during or before a season, they often have to take a semester off school if they want to be able to play their redshirt season and afford tuition. When a student athlete "redshirts," they take off a season for medical or other reasons in order to use that season of eligibility later on when they are fully healed.

“I took off the fall semester of 2015 after tearing my ACL that summer,” Clayton said. “In order to play my redshirt season without paying full tuition out of pocket, I took a medical leave of absence, which put a hold on all my scholarships but one. In taking the semester off, it will cost me about an extra 1,250 dollars because that particular scholarship is only good for eight consecutive semesters.”

Though student athletes often feel the impact a lack of scholarship money can have, some coaches on campus didn’t know the school had a policy dictating how much scholarship money they can give a returning player.

“I wasn’t aware that I have a certain set amount of money,” Pittman said. “It’s an interesting way to do it; it’s almost like a salary cap. I’ve been at other schools where it’s pretty cutthroat—like if a kid doesn’t perform the way you think he should, you get rid of him.”

Shay Wyatt, director of Westminster athletics, said this is a policy the college is looking into reforming.

“Being a member of SAAC (student athletic advisory committee)  has provided me with the knowledge that the faculty and staff are actively working on better promoting and supporting the athletics at Westminster,” Clayton said. “There is a lot of good things to come in the next year or so, and student athletes should be excited about what is to come.”

Editor's note: Bre Empey is a player on the women's soccer team.