Understanding college scholarships

You don't need AP calculus to do this math: An average of 112,500 seniors play girls' high school basketball each year. College teams, in contrast, have space for an average of about 5,241 freshmen each year. Who gets to play?

The correct answer is that there are not exactly enough roster spots for everyone to play college ball. And the process to get on one of those teams is competitive. However, levels of collegiate play, different scholarship guidelines and unique coaching perspectives mean that there just might be a team with a space specifically for you.

Your first step, of course, should be to do the work on the court. You'll need a game that sets you apart from the large majority of players you compete with. Things are going to be competitive for every roster spot on every college team.

Your next step should be to understand the recruiting process and know all your options. Start by learning the difference between the three generally recognized sanctioning bodies that govern college athletics: the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics) and the NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association).

The NCAA, is the most recognized and has the highest membership of four-year schools. The NAIA represents four-year institutions competing in college athletics as well. Two-year programs come under the jurisdiction of the NJCAA.

The NCAA offers basketball in three different divisions separated by varying financial aid standards. A total of 1,085 combined schools are competing in Division I through III this season. Division I, which can offer 15 full scholarships, has 345 schools participating at what is commonly regarded as the highest level of women's collegiate basketball. Division II, which has a scholarship limit of 10, has 289 while non-athletic scholarship Division III is represented by 451 members.

Division I schools operate as "head count" sports. Any athlete receiving any athletically related aid counts as one of their 15 total scholarships. An athlete on scholarship in another sport or one who receives any form of partial scholarship from the athletic department counts as a full toward that total as well.

Division II is what is commonly referred to as an "equivalency" sport. Their limit of 10 scholarships can be broken up and distributed among more athletes as long as the combined value of athletically related aid doesn't exceed their limit of 10 full rides.

The NAIA sponsors women's basketball on two different levels with 258 total participants. Their Division I level can provide 11 full scholarships and has 110 schools while 148 Division II programs can offer six scholarships. As with NCAA Division II, both NAIA divisions can divide those scholarships up among more players as long as they don't exceed the equivalent total of their limit.

Junior colleges governed by the NJCAA compete at three levels like the NCAA and are similarly separated by financial aid differences. Both Divisions I and II can offer a limit of 15 scholarships with the difference being all full scholarships at D-I while D-II can offer everything with the exception of room and board. Also like the NCAA, NJCAA Division III is non-scholarship. A total of 404 programs come under the NJCAA umbrella divided among 187 Division I, 131 Division II and 86 in Division III.

For the most part, that's what's out there and available at the next level. Keep in mind that those numbers have to be divided among four classes. The total is never divided evenly between each class and not all schools always operate at their scholarship limit. For some coaches it's a choice not to carry too many players on their roster. For other programs, despite their level, they may not be fully funded by their university.

There are no limits on the non-scholarship situations nor for walk-on scenarios at the scholarship level. In that light, at least on the surface, you might have to acknowledge that there actually are unlimited opportunities. Even in those situations, coaches still have to manage the size of their roster and the realistic possibilities of an athlete actually helping their team. There are no guarantees in either situation nor is there a binding obligation for the coach to keep you on the roster.

Do the math and you come up with 1,747 teams competing as part of the NCAA, NAIA or NJCAA. Using a ballpark average roster size of 12 players, you end up with approximately 20,964 players in uniform this season. Take into account again the division among four classes and you're looking at about 5,241 freshmen joining the collegiate ranks this year. The bottom line is that only about four percent of high school seniors will go on to play collegiate women's basketball.

Not everyone is headed for the elite at the NCAA Division I level, but those with a realistic grasp on their playing ability may find a setting that allows them keep playing beyond the high school level. It's worth it because there will come a day down the road when most former players would willingly pay for the opportunity to suit up for one more season.

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Mark Lewis is the national recruiting coordinator for ESPN HoopGurlz. Twice ranked as one of the top 25 assistant coaches in the game by the Women's Basketball Coaches Association, he has more than 20 years of college coaching experience at Memphis State, Cincinnati, Arizona State, Western Kentucky and, most recently, Washington State. He can be reached at mark@hoopgurlz.com.