Paying for College

How does D3 Volleyball Recruit Gauge Scholarship Possibilities?

Question:  Sorry about the long winded question…..

My daughter has received a lot of DIII interest from schools for volleyball, and we are trying to better understand the recruiting process.  We understand that there are no athletic scholarships, but that there are potential grants available.  If true, when is it appropriate to inquire about the availability of grant money for athletes at a school?  Does the coach or the admissions office best answer that?  Also, when in the process can an inquiry be truly/honestly answered and be more binding in nature?  In other words, does my daughter need to apply to all DIII schools she is potentially interested in playing for and also submit a FAFSA in order to for us to truly understand how much of her education would be covered under aids, grants, etc.?


No need to apologize for a “long-winded” question. As you enter the college athletics maze, you should expect to be asking many more! Indeed, wrangling money from a school for a Division III athlete can be a convoluted dance. The college folks cannot say … or really even intimate … that any funds your daughter receives are due to her volleyball prowess. So, instead, if an institution wants to lure her with dough, it has to officially be in the form of need-based aid or non-athletic merit aid.

As you probably know, need-based aid is tied to a family’s income and assets. Unless you’re totally certain that you won’t qualify at all, you should play around with the “Net Price Calculator” for all of the colleges that have contacted your daughter and/or which currently interest her. In theory (although not always in practice), the NPC can provide a decent estimate of how much each college will truly cost you, regardless of sticker price. (Links to NPC’s can be found on each college’s financial aid pages or simply by doing a search using the college’s name+Net Price Calculator.)  NPC results are most accurate when …

  1. the family’s financial situation is consistent and straightforward, not complicated by fluctuating income, bonuses, rental property, divorce & remarriage or other extenuating circumstances

  1. the Net Price Calculator doesn’t try to include merit aid estimates. Some NPC’s will ask about extracurricular achievements, GPA, test scores and other non-financial factors with the aim of including potential merit grants in the bottom line. While this seems like a good idea, the results can be off-base for a sought-after athlete who may not have quite the academic fire-power or leadership résumé of the typical merit aid recipient

If the NPC results suggest that you ought to receive need-based financial aid, you may eventually discover that some colleges will “sweeten the pot” for recruited athletes. That is, if the college ordinarily offers financial aid which includes a mix of grant (the good stuff that you don’t have to pay back) and loans, an athlete may receive a financial aid “package” that is longer on grant and shorter on loans than what a not-athlete might get.  BUT … it can be tricky to wheedle this information out of the college folks ahead of time. So once your daughter has honed in on a short list of top-choice colleges, you should set up a meeting (either in person or on the phone) with a financial aid officer to see if you can gain a sense of how your daughter’s aid package will be configured. Be sure to alert the coach ahead of time so that he or she can put a bug in the aid officer’s ear along the lines of, “I really want this kid!” But don’t be surprised if the response you get is vaguer than you’d like.

If, on the other hand, you won’t qualify for a lot of need-based aid (or for any at all), the dance gets even more complex and the waters murkier. Some D III colleges give ONLY need-based aid, but many also dole out merit aid which can have no ties at all to financial need. Merit money can range from a couple thousand dollars up to full tuition or even a free ride. I have seen colleges give “academic,” “arts,” or “leadership” scholarships to athletes, including those whose profiles off the playing field don’t really measure up. So this scholarship, despite its title, is really more like a back-door athletic scholarship. It’s not entirely kosher, which is why it can be hard to nail down in advance how much a coach will be able to snag for your daughter in order to entice her to enroll.

So that’s a little primer about the process. Now to your specific questions …

>> … when is it appropriate to inquire about the availability of grant money for athletes at a school?<<

As soon as you are in a conversation with a coach, it is appropriate to ask about merit scholarships. Your questions (long-winded if required!) should cover the range of funding available per student and whether or not a student with your daughter’s academic or extracurricular profile should be in the running … and for how much. Inquire about previous volleyball players who seemed similar on paper and ask how they fared in the merit-money arms race. Keep in mind, however, that the answer can be guesswork for the coach, and you need to take the response with a giant block of salt. Also keep in mind that the big elephant in the room will be the fact that these grants cannot be considered ATHLETIC scholarships, so you have to keep using terms like “merit money” or “academic scholarship.” The coach will get nervous if you start implying that the potential award is actually for volleyball.

>>Does the coach or the admissions office best answer that?<<

If you try to go through the admissions office and not the coach, you are more likely to get stonewalled. The admission officers MAY rather generally describe the merit scholarships that are offered and the criteria for receiving them so that you can assess whether your daughter might be a candidate. Sometimes you can eliminate options immediately if your daughter can’t possibly fill the bill (e.g., if the recipient must be a resident of a specific state or attend a specific type of high school or hail from a specific racial or ethnic background). But often the guidelines are cloudy (“… awarded to students who have demonstrated excellence in academics or leadership”) and you may have a hard time nailing down the admission folks when you ask them for a clearer picture of who is likely to land an award.

 >> In other words, does my daughter need to apply to all DIII schools she is potentially interested in playing for and also submit a FAFSA in order to for us to truly understand how much of her education would be covered under aids, grants, etc.?<<

Your daughter will only have to submit the FAFSA if she will qualify for need-based aid. But unless the Net Price Calculators assure you that your income and assets are SO high that your daughter has no prayer of receiving any need-based aid, you’d be wise to do the FAFSA. Borderline families sometimes get more money than they expected and, also, if your daughter doesn’t submit a FAFSA when she first applies to college, she may not be able to get the aid she needs if your family circumstances suddenly change.

But another wrinkle that affects your situation is that recruited athletes are usually encouraged to apply via Early Decision, when available. Coaches are eager to lock in recruits in the fall and will give priority to athletes who are willing to make the binding commitment that “ED” entails. They don’t want to have to woo multiple players for each position and then wait to see how may of these will actually apply and, above all, how many will show up in September. So it’s expedient for the coaches to favor the candidates who are open to applying ED. Then the coach can fill in the remaining spots through the Regular Decision pool. This means that some athletes will still be admitted via Regular Decision but the ED contenders will face far better odds.

When it comes to need-based financial aid, Early Decision is not really the lousy deal that the grapevine may proclaim that it is. Families can first do a Net Price Calculator or even schedule a meeting or call with a financial-aid staff member to assess whether the college is likely to be affordable. If the answer is yes, then the student can proceed with the Early application. The decision letter, which will probably arrive in mid-December, will also include a need-based financial aid offer. If that offer isn’t up to snuff, the family can appeal it. And if the appeal is not successful, the student can withdraw from the ED commitment with no penalty. Thus, when an athlete is eager to attend a college where the coach is showing significant interest, and the athlete will qualify for a reasonable amount of need-based aid,  then Early Decision is a very smart move.

Yet for the athlete who is depending on merit aid to make a college affordable, the Early Decision road is bumpier. Getting a beat on merit money can be difficult. Assurances or estimates from the coach can be helpful but not 100 percent dependable. Even worse, some colleges do not announce merit scholarships …. especially their biggest ones … until the spring. So, although ED candidates do have the right to bail out on the binding commitment when funding is inadequate, this must be done promptly. A student cannot wait until March or April—when some merit grants are finalized–to accept an Early Decision bid.  And if a college offers both Early Decision and merit aid, you have to wonder if the school will make its best offer to a kid who is already a sure-thing. Although colleges may insist otherwise, they’re probably going to use the bulk of their merit-money budget to lure top prospects who won’t say yes without it.

And if all of this weren’t confusing enough, you also need to consider that coaches can speak with forked tongues. Because Division III has no Letters of Intent to guarantee a coach that a recruited athlete is serious, some D III coaches will make promises that they can’t keep in order to attract more athletes than they may ultimately need. They might, for instance, tell your daughter that she will definitely be a first-year starter … and, indeed, if only a couple of recruited freshmen matriculate, she probably will be. But if all (or most) of the coach’s prospects take the bait, your daughter could be riding the pines.

So as you approach the D III college selection process, be prepared to do a lot of reading between the lines as you gauge not only the likely financial picture but also the coach’s interest and support.