top of page

Finding the right College Program for YOU by Coach Stigers!

If you want to play sports in college: THERE IS A COLLEGE PROGRAM FOR YOU!

The key to continuing your career as a student-athlete at the college level is to find and recruit the program that is the best fit for you and your goals.

Notice that I didn’t say getting recruited by—nope, the proverbial ball is in your hands. This is as it should be, because ultimately the education you obtain and the skills you learn by balancing an athletic career with your studies are yours as well.  A two part series will follow on how you as a prospective student athlete can narrow down the field of schools where you will be most competitive as a player while also considering the reality that college costs a lot of money and your ability to balance two major time commitments—academics and athletics.


You and your parents need to ask yourselves: what is the point of playing a sport in college?

  • Is it to compete at the highest level you can?

  • To obtain as large a scholarship as you can?

  • Is it simply because you want to play a game you love as long as possible?


These questions aren’t necessarily either/or, but it is critical to be clear about what your goals and priorities are.


For many athletes, the most prestigious, expensive, and competitive program I can think of is Stanford University in California—but most of us don’t want or can’t handle all three at once! The point I will make here is that there are many different types of academic programs, athletic teams, and costs, and one of those combinations is probably right for you. The trick is identifying the schools and sports programs with the right combination of academic rigor, athletic completion, and financial accessibility and then letting the coach know you want to be there.


Part 1. What are your priorities?

As a college bound student you are faced with two major concerns.

1) What do you want out of college?

2) How much are you (or your parents) willing to pay and/or borrow to get that?


Question 1: What is the point of YOU going to college?

Question 2:  Do the colleges where you are able to play your sport(s) have available what you want (and need) academically, socially, and financially?

Here are some possible answers to the first question (What is the point of YOU going to college?) and some additional questions you might want to ask of yourself:

  • Is it to get the most prestigious education possible?

  • To get the door-opening credential of a bachelor’s degree with as little debt as possible?

  • Because you want to be a doctor/lawyer/teacher/astronaut/entrepreneur?


These questions should help you to clarify your goals and priorities—and ask yourself: are you willing to trade prestige for debt?

Secondly, does that college have available what you want? 

  • Do you want to be far from home or close to home?

  • How important is the academic environment?

  • Do you want to get to know the faculty at the school?

  • Are you more interested in an urban area near big business recruiters or a bucolic (SAT word alert) woodland area in the country?

  • Do you want to play against strong regional rivals or throughout the whole country?

  • Is it important that you get the chance to study outside the US?

  • Do you want to go to graduate or professional school after undergrad?

The short story is, if you want to major in engineering/art/journalism/biology—make sure the school offers it!

What Next?

Make a list of all the qualities you’d like to see in a school and then utilize a resource like US News and World Report or Princeton Review guides (there are a bunch available for free in the public library or perhaps your own school). Ignore the rankings—but DO use the guides to identify what the school’s strengths are, its cost, location, selectivity (how many people get in out of how many apply) and compare its average GPA and test scores to your own. Find a bunch of schools you really think you can get into and could see yourself attending!

An easy way to implement what I’ve described above is to take a sheet of paper, hold it sideways (landscape) and fold it in thirds—at the top of the page make three headings (see below) Financial, Academics, Athletics—fill it in and you’ve got apples to apples comparisons across schools. Using this kind of systematic approach just might help you find some places you didn’t know would be a great place to continue playing a game you love and get a great start on you future career!


Name of School __________
Financial Sticker price: 


Academics Avg. GPA/Test Score/Class Rank:


Athletics Comparison to self: 








In Part II of this post I’ll discuss a little more about the variety and types of schools and athletic opportunities that exist, as well as how that affects the financial bottom line in terms of scholarships and other financial aid.

Part II. Getting the right mix of competition, education, and financial aid

Question 3: How good are you? And, how good do you want to be relative to your teammates and competition? This question relates to our very first question, what is the point of YOU going to college? Are you willing to trade athletic prestige for a bigger scholarship possibility?

If you are seriously considering college sports and are interested in being a scholarship athlete, you need to take a realistic look at your ability to compete at the next level. One thing to consider is that the “next level” is really a bunch of possible levels.

  • There are 3 tiers of NCAA competition (I, II, and III; and division III doesn’t award athletic scholarships—more to come on that).

  • There is also an organization called the NAIA which many schools compete in which also awards scholarships to student-athletes.

We know the most about Division I because that is what we see on TV and mostly read about in the papers, but there is a lot of good competition at schools all over the country. This is where your research can come in handy! First look at the list you’ve already made from your research and look at their current rosters.  See where those players went to high school or played club or travel ball. Have you ever matched up against their team in a tournament or playoff situation? It’s an imperfect system, but it is a start! This will give you a realistic gauge of where you can best compete for the limited number of scholarships available.

You might also want to spend some time tracking down former opponents from the last few years, people who a coach you trust would say you measure up against favorably, and figure out where they are now, and how successful they have been (points scored, wins/losses, playing time) at the level they ended up.

Question 4. How much are you (or your parents) willing to pay and/or borrow to get what you want out of college?


College is an investment, a very expensive one!  There are precious few full rides—the number of players on a team divided by the number of scholarships permitted by the NCAA (or NAIA) is less than 1 for the vast majority of sports! Over four years that means each incoming class is competing for just portions of a few scholarships. This isn’t meant to discourage you—it is meant to help motivate you to find your best-fit program.

Consider a few things in your search:

1.  Public vs. Private Schools
2.  Big Fish vs. Small Fish
3.  Coaches have limited recruiting resources

Public v. Private Schools: In-state tuition for a public college is going to be less expensive than tuition at many (if not most) private schools.  However, many private schools give substantial grants (this is referred to as the “discount rate”) which are a combination of merit and non-merit based grants and scholarships awarded to incoming students.  This ranges from 20-40% of the tuition “sticker price” at many private schools—in other words, the $40,000 you see online may be a lot closer to $28,000 at the end of the day. 


Big fish/small pond or Small fish/big pond?  I mentioned earlier how you will want to evaluate yourself against current college athletes.  Now think, how big a fish are you willing to be?  Say you are talented and athletic enough to compete for book money at Large D-1 State School (say, $1000 a year), but might you be more competitive at Regional State-School (which likely has lower tuition and smaller courses). This school may compete in NCAA D-II or NAIA. It is less prestigious as an athlete, but it might be a better fit in terms of all of your goals. 


Coaches have limited recruiting resources (even at division I programs), if the coach doesn’t know you are actually considering their program they might feel that it’s a waste of time to try and recruit you.  This is where’s great advice about contacting coaches and branding yourself comes into play!


I did all this, but the coach said she already has a [middle-blocker, goalkeeper, point-guard, insert your position here]… so you’ve found a school that fits you academically and in terms of athletic competition, but that coach doesn’t think you are good fit, or maybe you just didn’t hit it off personality-wise.  Many colleges compete in conferences with similar types of schools, find out what conference your first school competes in and spend a little time investigating some of their rivals!  You might find an even better fit!

A few parting thoughts:

You might be competitive for an academic scholarship, even if you aren’t competitive for an athletic scholarship (this is particularly true at schools where you’re above average academically and perhaps at division III schools which don’t award athletic aid, but may offer other forms of merit aid). 

You might be able to compete, but will you be able to compete and still accomplish your academic and career goals?  How good are you at balancing your studies and your sport?  Can you take an exam in the morning after arriving home on a bus at 1am?  You need to be able to do that.  Do you want to get into graduate or professional school?  Are you the type of person who will be able to meet professors (whose recommendations you will need) in a 300 person lecture hall or is a lower professor to student ratio more conducive to your personality (or vice versa)? Most importantly, know yourself and your own abilities! 

Community or junior college can be a great way to start an academic career with relatively few loans, and many schools have programs that compete in the National Junior College Athletic Association.  After two years of relatively low cost college you still have eligibility to spend at a four-year institution.

Here’s the big takeaway point—there is a college or university out there that will allow you to continue competing at a high level, and there are many schools that will offer you a great college education. Yes, finding the perfect match is a lot of work, but it is work that most definitely pays off in a good fit for what can be an extremely valuable time in your future. 

Good luck!

bottom of page