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Student Athletes and Student Debt

Today is the first big Saturday of college football. It’s practically a national holiday. All around the country students and alumni are donning their school colors, firing up the grills, icing down beer, (poorly) slinging footballs, and getting ready to cheer on their school until voices are hoarse. They’ll pay for it tomorrow, but it’ll be worth it. Today some of the country’s finest athletes will take to the field and give us the drama that no movie or TV show (except maybe Game of Thrones) can ever recreate. I’m pretty fired up!

I’m sitting here watching College Gameday and blogging at the same time (multitasking FTW) and got to thinking about student athletes and student debt. As a former Division 1 student athlete myself, I think I have a little bit of insight that I’d like to share. There seems to be a perception among the general college population that student athletes have it easy.

And I don’t mean that in terms of the athletes’ college experience. Ultimately, everyone understands that it’s a physically and mentally demanding 4 years. Being a college athlete (time-wise) is easily equivalent to working a nearly full-time job and going to school full-time, and, if pressed, most people would agree with that. And don’t discount the pressure to perform and added social exposure (for better or worse). Business Insider reports that, on average, college athletes spend 39 hours per week on school related activities and 33 hours per week engaged in practice or competition. So if you happen to think student athletes have a lot of free time, you should probably check yourself.

Where the disconnect truly lives is on the financial side. Most people I speak with think that college athletes don’t pay for school. For some, that’s true, but that’s a relatively small percentage of college athletes. Full ride scholarships are not as prevalent as one may imagine (especially outside Division 1) and are not guaranteed for the full four years. Scholarships are renewed at the school’s discretion every year, meaning the university can essentially pull the rug out from under an athlete’s feet at any moment. I’ve seen this happen many times. For every one of those amazing YouTube videos where a walk-on gets surprised with a scholarship, there are several undocumented versions of the opposite. The average Division 1 scholarship is valued at $14,720 for men and $15,162 for women. I think we all know that neither number is enough to cover the full cost of being a college student. Natty Light isn’t free, after all.

Let’s break those numbers down a little bit. Most academic years are 30 weeks in length. So, for the average male college athlete, $14,720 is their wage for 30 weeks of work. Remember that dimensional analysis thing you were taught in high school that you swore you’d never use? We’re going to use it now to figure out the “hourly wage” for a male college athlete.

While $14.87 an hour may seem like a lot for a “college job”, there are more than a few employment opportunities available to college students that pay as much or more and allow you to work from home (read: your dorm). There are opportunities to work in telemarketing, customer service, transcription, search engine evaluation, or online tutoring that pay at least $15 an hour. Check here for a more complete list. My point is that the disparity is not nearly what you probably think.

So next time you feel like lamenting about how much better off a “scholarship athlete” must be than you, maybe you should reconsider. It’s likely not the case.