Written by Martha Brockenbrough
Wednesday, 01 November 2006
When you look at your kids and fantasize about their futures, which dream seems more likely to come true?that Dick and Jane will grow up to be neurosurgeons, or professional athletes?
If you look at it from a purely statistical standpoint, the odds of either are slim.
There are 4,500 neurosurgeons and 17,000 professional athletes in the United States.
But let?s say you broadened your fantasy horizons a bit and allowed your child to operate on more parts of the body than just the brain.
Which is more likely then?a career as a surgeon, or as a professional athlete?
In that case, surgeon wins, scalpel down. There are about 79,000 of them running around the United States, and each has completed many, many years of expensive education and training. It?s a rare achievement, and one that most people would recognize as such.
This is perhaps why hordes of parents don?t salivate about surgery scholarships for their kids, even though some surgeons, over their careers, earn professional-athlete-sized salaries.
Still, the launching pad of a pro career?the college scholarship?is a dream all too many hold dear. They?re really rare?-about 126,000 a year, for an average of just under $8,000 per student. Only Division I and Division II schools of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) offer them. The Ivy League schools don?t (but they?re well-enough endowed to have plenty of financial aid for kids in need).
How do you get an athletic scholarship?
For starters, you have to be a star at your sport. Athletic scholarships go to only the best high school athletes. One college counselor I spoke to said, ?You?ve got to be very good. Very, very good.?
The NCAA partially funds these scholarships, but individual schools are responsible for doling out the money and deciding which sports to support.
To be considered for a scholarship, students must register at the end of junior year with a clearinghouse to prove that they?re amateurs and academically eligible. Eligibility depends on grade-point averages in approved courses, and scores on standardized tests. (Details are available at the NCAA Clearinghouse Web site.)
And that?s not all. Bruce Bailey, who counsels students at Lakeside School in Seattle, says students can also market themselves to recruiters?and, indeed, might have to if they?re not playing a marquee sport like football.
This might include hiring someone to videotape the athletes? play, or traveling to showcase athletic events, which often occur during finals week. (?This drives me nuts,? Bailey says.)
Recruiters are allowed to contact students around junior year, depending on the sport. Then, to be eligible for a scholarship at a particular school, student-athletes have to apply and be accepted.
If all works out well, they?re offered scholarships, which can cover part or all of their fees for books, tuition, and room and board.
A sports scholarship isn?t guaranteed for all four years, though. The athletes have to prove their mettle on the field. If they sustain career-ending injuries, there?s no guarantee they?ll keep their scholarships. Nor are scholarships transferable if they don?t like the school or sports program.
And this is what gives me the most concern about the quest for athletic scholarships: If a student is at a school that isn?t a good fit, or playing for a coach who?s more concerned about his win-loss record than the cartilage in his point guard?s knees, a scholarship is anything but a free ride to school.
If that student isn?t good enough to play professionally, he could be paying intellectually and literally the rest of his life, particularly if the scholarship didn?t cover all the costs of college.
Even if these student-athletes who don?t make the pros still love their sports enough to work in a related field, there simply aren?t all that many jobs out there. Counting coaches, umpires, and related workers along with the athletes, the U.S. Labor Department reports there were only 212,000 people who made a living this way in 2004, earning a median $48,310. While that?s not a bad income at all, there are more than twice as many doctors, earning a good deal more.
This probably isn?t quite what parents dreaming of athletic scholarships hoped for, but it is the reality.
Living the dream
That said, for the student who does have the talent, a scholarship can be a great thing.
Lindsay Ward, a star gymnast at Boise State, is thriving with hers.
Without the help, her mom would have had to take out loans to pay for Lindsay?s college, because her income and her ex-husband?s income bumped Lindsay out of the financial aid pool (even though the former husband hasn?t helped support Lindsay since 1999, says her mom, Chris Ward).
Still, there was never any grand plan that Lindsay would go for a college scholarship. Lindsay didn?t even start gymnastics until she was nine years old and her ballet teacher died suddenly.
Without her beloved teacher, she lost enthusiasm for ballet and took gymnastics just for fun. She was a natural and was put on the team immediately. Within a year, she?d dropped ballet altogether, though that early training ?was the best thing she could have ever done for gymnastics,? says Ward.
Ward was careful not to act like a coach. It helped that she knew nothing about gymnastics, she jokes.
?You can?t push them, or they?ll burn out,? she adds. ?They give up so much of their time to do gymnastics?. My daughter didn?t go to football games or date. She worked out six days a week, four to five hours a day for her four years of high school,? even during vacations.
She was an outstanding student, graduating with a 4.2 GPA. She also worked hard to get the scholarship, making videos, taking still photos that showed her form, and sending out letters of introduction.
All that hard work was also good practice, as Lindsay is majoring in biochemistry, which means she could someday be a brain surgeon, if she wanted.
It was also hard work for Lindsay?s mom, who missed only one gymnastics meet (she was throwing up at the time).
?I figured if she could work that hard, I could take the time to be there,? Ward says. ?These times were some of the best ? in my life and have made me very close to my daughter. I will always remember them.?
Something tells me that experience can be worth as much as or more than the college scholarship, and better yet?it?s in every parent?s reach.
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