For the past several years I've been on the board of FC Boulder, our local youth soccer club, and this fall I became co-president. This vantage point, coupled with my day job, has led me to develop some views on youth sports. But to be perfectly clear, even though I refer to FC Boulder in the post below, the views offered are mine alone and not those of FC Boulder or my colleagues on the Board.
These views are offered to stimulate discussion, ultimately over what is best for our children in youth sports, recognizing that the answer to this question will be different for different families.
With that, let's take a look at girls youth soccer and the college scholarship.
Playing college soccer is an ambition for many girls. For some the opportunity comes with a financial benefit, for others it is simply an opportunity to continue playing the game that they love at a higher level. To understand the challenges faced by a players, their parents and the clubs that they pay for it is instructive to look at some numbers.
There are 333 NCAA Division 1 women’s soccer programs (PDF). Although they average 28 players per team, under NCAA rules, each program only is allocated 14 scholarships. That means that nationwide there are 4,662 total scholarships available. Because scholarships are awarded over a period of 5 years (during which a player is eligible for 4 of those years), that means that there are only on average 930 full scholarships open every year.
Most programs split their scholarships up to distribute them more equitably across their team, so on average, a college player “on scholarship” is likely to be on about a 1/3 scholarship. Based on its population, Colorado should expect about 30 such partial scholarships to be awarded each year. NCAA Division II schools award about 2/3 of the scholarships of Division I, and Division III does not award scholarships.
At DI, DI and DIII levels there are about 27,000 total college soccer players. There are approximately 5,000 total scholarships. Right away it should be clear that playing soccer in college is not identical to securing a scholarship, much less a "full ride."
Lets look at some specifics. Colorado has more than 60 youth soccer clubs, but if we assume that the 10 biggest clubs are the ones that secure scholarships (not exactly right but pretty close), then just as a proportional average my club-- FC Boulder -- should expect about 5 (partial) Division I and II scholarships to be awarded to girls in the club every year.
But what if we don’t care about scholarships? What if we look to all girls in Colorado who sign with NCAA universities to play soccer regardless of whether they get financial assistance?
Last year the state of Colorado saw 121 girls commit to play NCAA soccer: 69 at D1, 38 at D2 and 14 at D3. Almost 2/3 of these commitments came from three clubs in Colorado:
In recent years, the numbers suggest that FC Boulder has punched above its weight, for instance in the class of 2017, 9 FCB girls signed with colleges. FC Boulder does this even though it does not offer the formalized, elite-level programming offered by other clubs in the state. While that is great, even if we wanted to, FC Boulder could not replicate the programming at the bigger clubs because FC Boulder simply does not have the size or resources to offer such programs. Most clubs in Colorado (and every state) are face similar limitations based on their size and programming.
Given these realities, should there come a time when the best advice a local club can give an outstanding player is that there will be better opportunities for development by moving on to specialized elite programs at other clubs? Of course we should!
Advice to move on can be tough to hear for parents (trust me), and also for a club. Moving to a bigger, non-local program with elite programming might mean a commute to practices of an hour or more. It could mean more expenses. It will inevitably mean that your daughter (or son) no longer plays with her friends of many years in order to seek new opportunities. From the club standpoint, they lose one of their very best players. It might also mean giving up the chance to play in high school, which I fully endorse (but I know many do not).
Moving on is exactly what happened with FC Boulder (boys) player Shane O’Neill, who played for FC Boulder and then moved on to the Colorado Rapids Development Academy, then the US U-20 MNT and a professional career.
It is also what happened with Colorado standout Mallory Pugh, who went from training with an elite girls’ program to training with a boy’s US Soccer Development Academy when her growth as a player exceeded what was available on her team. She recently de-committed from UCLA to pursue a pro career and US WNT service when it became apparent that college soccer wouldn’t serve her developmental needs and career ambitions.
Youth soccer clubs serve their players well by helping them to identifying when it may be time to “graduate” to the next level. They also serve them well by being realistic with parents about the opportunities to play in college. The fact is, only a small percentage of girls (and boys) go on from youth sports to play in college. However, these numbers are of limited value because we all think our kids are special, and some parents (and kids) suffer from a form of "scholarship derangement syndrome."
So what advice would I give to the parent (and kid) who wants to play in college?
- If the ambition is financially motivated, understand that the typical scholarship to play girls soccer is valued at about $70,000 (assuming a 1/3 scholarship for 5 years and a full annual scholarship worth $40,000). With youth soccer costing as much as $5,000 to $10,000 per year (equipment, club fees, tournament travel, etc.), a family could save $70,000 over 18 years by socking away half this much each year by cutting soccer in half. The pay-to-play model for US soccer is much discussed these days (and some families can't afford soccer or college), but for now, its the way the game is played. Bottom line: The parent-provided "scholarship" is always going to be a far better way to pay for college than an athletics scholarship.
- If the ambition is athletically motivated, understand that there are many different options for playing soccer beyond youth sports. The more prestigious D1 scholarships in the power conferences are few and far between, and go to the exceptionally talented players - its just a fact. Talk to coaches inside and outside your club and ask for the straight scoop. But for most girls, the opportunities will be found at smaller programs. There are also university club programs and intramurals. The opportunities to play beyond youth soccer are much broader than scholarship opportunities, and each girl and her family needs to find the right balance of education, soccer and life. But make no mistake, playing high level sports in college and succeeding academically is a lot of work.
As with most topics, the best advice to to get educated. Seek different points of view. Ultimately, recognize that soccer is a beautiful game that can be played by both men and women for many decades after youth sports, high school and college are in the rear view mirror. As we say at FC Boulder -Soccer for life.