Matt Anderson is the greatest volleyball player Western New York ever has produced. He's a two-time U.S. Olympian. He has been playing professionally in Russia for one of the world's best teams the past five years.
Anderson was one of the top recruits in the country coming out of West Seneca West High School and went to Penn State, one of the top college volleyball programs in the nation.
But Anderson was not offered a full athletic scholarship. There are 18 players on the average major-college volleyball team, and the maximum number of scholarships allowed in the sport is 4.5.
"I was offered a half-scholarship, which is relatively normal for a higher recruit," Anderson said. "Some guys will get full rides, but they're few and far between."
Anderson led Penn State to the NCAA championship as a junior in 2008. He was first-team All-America, the national player of the year and the most outstanding player of the NCAA Tournament. And he still wasn't on a full scholarship.
"That's a small reason why I left after my junior year," Anderson said. "I stayed on half-scholarship my entire time. I wasn't going to get a full scholarship. They didn't have any more to delegate toward me."
Anderson became the first top volleyball player ever to leave school a year early. He signed a lucrative deal to play professionally in South Korea.
"I left school after three years just about $70,000 in debt," Anderson said. "I was looking at going another $25,000 in debt. Or I could start to play and make money and be able to pay off my debt right away. School is always there if I need to when I'm retired."
Anderson is one high-profile example of the myth of the full ride.
News of high school athletes signing with college teams comes in waves near the end of every sports season. Contrary to the perception of a lot of teenage students and their parents, the reality is very few of them are receiving a full athletic scholarship.
Only in football, men's and women's basketball, women's gymnastics and women's tennis are essentially all the Division I student-athletes on the team on full athletic grants.
For all of the other sports, the grants are split up among the players, to one degree or another.
The big, nationwide picture: The average athletic scholarship is $14,270 for men and $15,162 for women, according to the site scholarshipstats.com. The average annual cost is about $44,000 for a private college (counting room and board), about $20,000 for in-state public schools and about $35,000 for out-of-state public schools. Those athletic grant totals factor in all of the full rides for football and basketball players.
The scholarship limits for most nonrevenue sports are well below the number of athletes on the teams.
Examples: A baseball team has 35 players, on average, but a Division I scholarship maximum of 11.7. For men's hockey, it's 27 players with a scholarship max of 18. For track and field, it's an average of 39 athletes with 12.6 scholarships for men and 18 for women.
However, most schools outside the top 40 or 50 in the nation offer fewer than the maximum. The University at Buffalo this year spread out 7.28 grants to men's track and field and 7.2 grants to its men's soccer team, a sport with a max limit of 9.9. The rest of the schools in the Mid-American Conference are in the same boat, and the schools in Canisius and Niagara's league, the Metro Atlantic Athletic Conference, have smaller athletic budgets. Canisius' powerhouse women's lacrosse team, which has made six NCAA Tournaments in the last seven years, offers 6.5 scholarships. The fully funded Boston College team that beat the Griffs and made the NCAA final this year offers 12.
Of course, high school stars who get any athletic grant money are the exception.
"I think there's more of a misconception over getting a scholarship in general, not getting a full one," said Clarence softball coach Todd Banaszak, who has sent many of his players off to college teams. "Everybody's sights are set on getting one but how many are available? Not many."
Only about 2 percent of all high school athletes receive a sports scholarship, according to the NCAA. For boys basketball, it's 0.9 percent of high schoolers who play Division I. For football, it's 2.4 percent; boys and girls track and field, 2.0 percent; boys ice hockey, 3.3 percent; and girls ice hockey, 7.5 percent.
Many of Western New York's top high school and youth coaches do their best to prepare parents and students for the reality of college expenses.
"At any club program worth its salt, one of the first meetings they're going to have with parents is to explain the situation," said Robert Pierce, coach of the Eden High boys and director of the powerhouse Eden Volleyball Club.
"In March, I sat down with all of our sophomores and juniors and their parents," said Sweet Home track coach Brian Lombardo, whose program has sent many to college. "I say it's about us finding the right match. Sometimes there's financials in there. But the odds of getting the full scholarship, they're not over, but they're tough to come by. So how do you turn it into the best advantage for you?"
"There's a myth that we have to go D1," Lombardo said. "But if you go D1 and you're on the team for a year and never make it, then you're kind of lost in a place you don't want to be. We tell our kids we want to find a place you can get into and out of."
Scott Welch is coach of the Niagara Junior Purple Eagles Under 19 elite girls team. He has a remarkable track record of producing college players. Since 1999, as a top travel coach and former Nichols School coach, he has sent 73 girls to college hockey. Of those, 32 have gone Division I and 29 have received full rides.
"Each summer, we go away to a tournament in Boston, and there's a lot of downtime, so we sit with the parents and kids and lay it out," Welch said. "Realistically, there's 36 Division I programs out there."
"Of the 36, you take the Ivy Leagues out of it since they do not offer athletic scholarships," Welch said. "Now you're down to 30. Some of the schools are not fully funded. Fully funded are at 18 scholarships a year. Some are at 14. Some are at 12.... There's probably 125 scholarships a year that are available. You're competing with U.S. kids, with kids from Canada, and the Europeans are starting to come more and more. The competition is incredibly intense."
Earning the grant
Jon Jones, a UB great shot putter, had a typical experience coming out of Portville High School. He was not hotly recruited and needed to improve his grades. After one year at SUNY Buffalo State, he transferred to UB and was on no athletic aid. He starred as a sophomore, earning All-America honors, and then got $10,000 in athletic aid to add to the need-based aid he was getting. After his need-based aid ran out in his fifth year of eligibility, he said he was bumped up to about $21,000 in athletic aid. Jones won the NCAA title his senior season.
Similarly in men's volleyball, many recruits don't get athletic money as a freshman, as the great Anderson did at Penn State.
"They're limited to 4.5 scholarships, and they can divide that up however they want," said Eden's Pierce. "Usually, they back-load it. They'll say we can't give you anything the first year, and if you earn more, you can get up to 60, 70 percent."
Girls volleyball is different, with 12 full rides available, and rules dictate that there's no splitting.
Pierce was an All-American at Penn State in the 1980s, and his two daughters and a son followed his footsteps to Penn State. Kendall Pierce graduated in 2015. Lainy and son Declan still are competing.
"When my two girls went to Penn State, they essentially got what's called a two-and-two," he said. "So two of their years were covered, the first two were not. With girls volleyball, it's all or nothing for that year."
Said Lombardo: "A lot of coaches, because they're so limited on money, they will say come here on 25 percent or walk on and prove it. Speaking generally, a lot of colleges are giving most of their scholarship money to kids already on their team. You have to go in and prove it for a year or two. So you're coming out with some debt from the first two years."
Some elite recruits find themselves in a strong bargaining position. Corrin Genovese was a three-time Under Armour All-American as a softball star at Williamsville North. She was runner-up for the state player of the year. She went on to star at Missouri and was first-team shortstop in the Southeastern Conference, the top softball league in the nation.
"I received multiple offers from schools that could offer me a full ride," said Genovese, who now works in medical sales in Chicago. "But I was looking for a caliber of school that could compete for a national championship every year. At Mizzou, the first year, they could only offer me an 80 percent scholarship. Then years two, three and four were fully covered."
"In softball, they say they draw a line up the middle of the field," Genovese said. "Catchers, pitchers, shortstop, second base and centerfielder are going to get the money or the higher priority in recruiting."
The same holds for most sports. In volleyball, for instance, outside hitters and setters are the priority athletic grant positions.
The challenge for top high school athletes and their parents is to try to nail down from college coaches what's being offered as early as possible in the recruiting process.
It's understandable that college coaches may want to see what the recruit can get in need-based and academic aid before firmly committing the athletic money.
"Some coaches have to play it close to the vest," Lombardo said. "Some will say let's get the elephant out of the room. This is what I see. Others don't want to say a word. Sometimes it's because they don't know, either. If they have a scholarship offered in the early signing period in September and that recruit chooses to go elsewhere, now they have that money to spread around. It becomes a puzzle for both sides."
"It's like dating," said Welch. "There's coaches who like kids. Then you need the love. I've been doing this so long, I have a relationship with the coaches."
"I might say, 'Where do you have her on your list?' " Welch said. " 'Well, she's 13th,' they say. 'How many forwards are you bringing in?' 'I'm bringing in three.'... I try to over-communicate with the parents and constantly update them. I'm the messenger. I'm not going to candy-coat it. You don't want to build false hopes."
The real equation for most star high school athletes — not counting the football players and basketball players on full rides — is a combination of need-based aid, athletic aid and, for some, academic aid.
"I don't want to burst anybody's bubble," said Pierce. "We're very realistic in our discussions with parents on the club side. We have 20 boys playing D1 or Division III, and most of them are earning some form of aid, and it comes in various ways."
Better students have a better chance at getting a good deal because at many schools they get to stack academic aid onto need- and athletic-based aid.
Canisius College has 380 student-athletes, and 222 receive some type of athletic financial aid. That 58 percent ratio is the norm for a private school without football.
"Our coaches are looking for the best students who are also the best athletes," Canisius Athletic Director Bill Maher said. "At Canisius, we have a very generous merit aid package. Our Ignatian scholarship, which is our top scholarship, is a $23,000 award. The Trustee's scholarship is a $21,000 award, and it stair-steps down from there based on your high school average and test scores. Those are sizable awards. Coaches are going to look for the best students first because that's going to help their dollar go further."
Said Welch: "The first conversation with college coaches is always, 'Great hockey player, what kind of grades?' If a kid struggles academically, all those schools start to narrow down as far as the options the player has."
College administrators stress a good deal is there to be had for high schoolers good enough to play at the next level.
"First, the opportunity to be a student-athlete at any college is a wonderful experience," says Maher. "It's a great participation experience, it's a great learning experience. What it provides for the rest of your life are tangible, transferable skills that help make you a successful person."
"Because the academics at UB are so rigorous," said UB Athletic Director Allen Greene, "they're getting a great value for what they're paying. In-state tuition is still very affordable."
Whether it's at Ivy League schools or lower Division I colleges, a door often is opening for athletes that would not otherwise be available.
Says Eden's Pierce: "I will say this: One of the selling points is getting into a university that maybe they normally would not get into if they were considered only academically."
"Many of our athletes get admitted to UB on their own," Greene said. "However, athletics, similar to other specialized programs, admits a very small number of students (less than 25 percent) through the special admissions policy determined by UB admissions."
"If you have two people in line for the same award and one is going to play for the school, who are they going to give it to?" said Sweet Home's Lombardo. "They'll give it to the one who's giving back to the university. They can't say that out loud. But common sense says that's going to happen."
Making it work requires more planning — and more cost — than most student-athletes realize.
Said Clarence's Banaszak: "I do believe if you want to play and you're good, you're at the upper end of the high school level, there's a place for you to play somewhere."
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