Sports signs, dollar signs

Scholarships focus on teams, but cost savings put families in win column, too

November 08, 2006|By Childs Walker | Childs Walker,Sun Reporter

Joanna Strickland never doubted that her three children would go to college.

But sending them could have been a burden for the Mount Airy family. Four years at Maryland for oldest daughter Marche, four at Indiana for son Marshall and another four for youngest daughter Marah could have amounted to some $250,000 in tuition, room and board.

That might have required a second loan against the house and almost certainly would have consigned the children to student loan debt.

Instead, when Marah Strickland, a senior at Towson Catholic, confirms her plans to attend school in College Park today, she will be the third Strickland child to accept a full basketball scholarship.

Coverage of the national signing period - which begins today for men's and women's basketball and most sports outside of football - tends to center on which top prospects go where. Fans speak of these athletes as assets who might help win a few big games before continuing inevitable ascents to the NBA or WNBA.

But forgotten are the scholarships themselves. For the majority of excellent high school athletes, pro dollars are a nonfactor, and these gifts are the most lucrative prizes available. So today, when players make their commitments official, is a momentous day for them.

For the Strickland family, signing day has become almost a holiday. It wasn't that Joanna and her husband, Marshall Strickland Jr., drove their children to translate their skills into scholarships. Basketball started as another way to keep them occupied. And once the kids showed talent, making varsity in high school became the next goal. A free ride to college?

"That was just something nice that came out of it," Joanna Strickland said. "But it certainly is a blessing, because the money would've had to come from somewhere."

Anyone who doubts the importance of athletic scholarships need only do a quick search on Amazon.com. More than 20 guides to getting a free ride are available at a keystroke.

"As a parent, it's a lot of money to save," said Larry Leckonby, Maryland's senior associate athletic director for business. "It certainly gives your kids a financial advantage. Most kids have loans to pay off [after] college."

Only one in three students from the college class of 2006 entered the work world without debt from student loans, according to federal statistics. The same data show that the median income of college graduates is about 70 percent higher than that of high school graduates. So the short- and long-term benefits of a free college education are hard to dispute.

The financial incentive is only the most obvious, said Dion Wheeler, a former track coach and author of two guides to obtaining athletic scholarships.

"Psychologically, it's a confirmation, a tipping point that says all the efforts and all the sacrifices you made in high school have paid off," Wheeler said.

Parents and payoffs

Parents can become too pushy about scholarships because of the financial payoff, he added. Wheeler knows from experience. His daughter was an excellent high school hurdler in Ohio but eschewed scholarship offers at first because she felt he'd pushed her too much. She ultimately changed her mind.

"But parents need to be extremely careful how much they advocate getting a scholarship as the sole reason for participating in athletics," Wheeler said.

A full scholarship at Maryland covers tuition, room, board, books and health, telephone and technology fees for up to five years (including a redshirt season), and is paid for from university and athletic department funds. If an athlete moves off campus after freshman year, the school will pay him/her the equivalent of on-campus housing costs to put toward rent.

The package is worth about $17,500 a year to an in-state student and $30,500 a year to an out-of-state student. The components of a full scholarship are nearly identical from school to school and sport to sport, though a scholarship to a private school such as Duke is "worth" about $15,000 more than a out-of-state scholarship to Maryland because of differences in tuition and fees.

When athletes sign today, they will enter binding agreements with Maryland that say they can't play at another school in 2007. Maryland, in turn, can't give away their spots, even if more gifted athletes suddenly become available.

Scholarships are one-year agreements, but if Maryland decides not to renew one, the school better have a good reason, because the athlete can appeal to an independent panel.

"And most of the time, kids will appeal, because it's a big loss of money," said Dan Trump, Maryland's associate athletic director for compliance. Trump and Leckonby said that with 450 scholarship athletes on campus, coaches ask to rescind scholarships a handful of times a year.

Poor grades, discipline problems, failure to go to class and repeated violation of team rules can be grounds for termination.

But schools cannot push athletes away because of poor play or injuries. "We call those recruiting errors," Leckonby said.

Full ride rules

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