College Decisions for Student Athletes

Whether you're a top player in your sport, or you simply want to participate in team sports while at college, you should find plenty of options at virtually any school. Official teams are just one way to play. Less formal clubs and intramural teams are also popular choices.

Sarah Phillips is a student and athlete at the University of Wisconsin Stevens Point. She plays ice hockey and softball. "What division to play on [had] a huge role in my decision of where to go to school," she says.

Ice hockey is most important to her, but since there aren't many Division II college hockey teams, she had to pick between Division I and Division III schools. "I settled on Division III because I would be able to play two sports, which would have been nearly impossible at a Division I school. Also, at the Division III level I was able to come in as a freshman and see a significant amount of playing time in both sports, something I would have had to wait until later for [at the Division I level]," Phillips says.

Don Johnson, a high school senior in Brookfield, Illinois, knew when he started researching colleges that he wanted to play football. At first he was looking at Division I schools. "I was thinking [University of] Michigan or [University of Wisconsin] Madison, but wanted a school where I'd have more chances to play."

Like Phillips, Johnson considered other divisions before making Sacred Heart University in Fairfield, Connecticut, his top choice. Sacred Heart is a Division I AA school.

Another factor student athletes must consider is their eligibility for athletic scholarships. A Division I school, Binghamton University offers 13 full basketball scholarships for men and 13 full basketball scholarships for women. Binghamton's coaches recruit most players.

"Our two most popular sports are men's and women's basketball," says Cheryl Brown, director of undergraduate admissions at Binghamton University. "In other sports the coaches have a certain amount of [scholarship] money they can spend, so they allocate that per student. Student A might be the best lacrosse player, but they might only give him or her a half-scholarship so they can give somebody else a half-scholarship. That's up to the coaches."

When Phillips decided to attend a Division III school, she knew that an athletic scholarship was off the table. "Division III schools aren't allowed to give out athletic scholarships, so I didn't receive one. However, the coach was able to get me money in other ways. Because I'm from Canada and go to school in the U.S., I was offered a scholarship because of my international student status," Phillips says.

Division I athletes have responsibilities nearly equal to full-time jobs. They also face high expectations from fans and coaches.

"A Division I athlete has to be prepared to live the life of an athlete," Brown says. "Sometimes three hours a day of working out, maybe giving up vacations. I know our basketball team played games the entire winter break, so while their friends were home sleeping late -- or maybe having jobs -- the athletes were here practicing and playing."

Keep in mind that the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) ensures that student athletes don't ignore the academic side of college life.

"The NCAA has rules that do not allow all of a student's time to be taken up by sports, [but] it is up to the student to be able to balance the demands of athletics and academics," says Jennifer Smith, associate athletic director for compliance at Michigan State University. Michigan State is a "Big Ten" Division I school, offering scholarships in 24 varsity sports.

While the NCAA allows 20 hours a week for practice, Smith says, "There is additional mandatory study hall, training room, competitions and meetings each week."

"Division I sports add a tremendous amount to school spirit," Brown says. Club and intramural teams also boost school spirit by allowing more students to play. Club sports are supported by the school, but are less rigorous than Division I level play. Intramural teams play one another on campus. "The kids can do them more like a recreational activity," she says.

Club teams include fencing, swimming, diving, golf, rowing, rugby and lacrosse. Binghamton even offers a roller hockey team.

"There are a lot of options," Brown says, "At Binghamton we have co-recreational sports where men and women play on the same teams. It's very popular. About 85 percent of our students play some kind of recreational sport.

"Good students find creative ways to blow off steam, and sports is a way to relieve stress, to relax, to get your endorphins pumped, to have lots of fun with your friends, colleagues and peers," Brown says.

"As stressful as sports can be at times, I feel that playing sports is really enhancing my college experience," Phillips says. "Also, playing a sport is a nice release from the stresses of school by allowing you to do something you love with people who share your passion."

"We find that very strong students are frequently involved in some kind of sport," Brown says.

Whether it's on a Division I, II or III team, on a club team, or at the intramural level, participating in sports can benefit students in hidden ways.

"They gain a great sense of competition, time management, camaraderie, leadership and sportsmanship," Smith says. "Athletic participation also helps develop a wide variety of life skills, such as goal-setting, teamwork, cooperation, accountability and responsibility."

Phillips has made many friends through sports. Playing in a national championship hockey tournament was also a memorable experience for her. "We got to fly on our own chartered commercial plane with camera crews following us," she says. "We were treated like royalty the entire time. It was quite the experience."

The only downside Phillips has found so far? "It's hard to have a job and earn some extra spending money, especially during the season."