Balancing Being a Student Athlete & Academics in College

By Kevin Brouillard · September 10, 2023 · 7 minute read

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Balancing Being a Student Athlete & Academics in College

Going to college is a lot of work. Between studying for exams, cranking out term papers, and keeping up on homework, there is a lot to stay on top of. For student athletes, there is even more to juggle. Their chosen sport is basically a full-time job ― and a physically-demanding one at that.

The good news is that, according to recent research, college athletes tend to have higher graduation rates than their peers. However, to make it to your college graduation, you’ve got to keep your grades up and find the time to study, which can be especially challenging during your freshman year.

Read on to learn some simple and effective strategies that can help you balance your responsibilities in the classroom and on the court, field, or wherever you play.

Planning Your Class Schedule Accordingly

Often, coaches will outline clear timeframes for practice and training that student athletes need to plan their class schedules around. Additionally, games and competitions are usually scheduled far enough in advance for student athletes to know which days of the week they’ll be traveling most often.

Still, there may be some discretion in choosing class times. Keeping in mind when you prefer to eat, sleep, and study is key to creating a schedule that will help you perform as a student and athlete.

Although many student athletes maintain an active training schedule throughout the year, the official NCAA season (or the majority of it) for many sports occurs during either the fall or spring semester. You may want to take advantage of a more flexible off-season schedule by taking more academically demanding classes and those that would otherwise conflict with their practice schedule.

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Keeping Your Eye on the Prize

Student athletes invest countless hours in their chosen sport. Yet, the vast majority will graduate and pursue a career outside athletics. On average, just 2% of college student athletes move up to professional leagues after NCAA competition.

Academics are an integral part of being a successful student athlete. Choosing a degree program you’re passionate about and that supports your career goals can help keep you motivated and on track to graduate.

Each team and college may maintain its own standards for GPA requirements to compete, but the NCAA sets minimum requirements too. Division I and Division II athletes are required to meet initial eligibility criteria set by the NCAA while Division III student-athletes are held to the standards set by the schools they attend.

Just skating by in terms of GPA may allow you to compete, but it could hurt your candidacy for internships and jobs after graduation.

Recommended: 12 Ways a College Athlete Can Make Money

Building Relationships With Your Professors and Classmates

This advice could apply to any college student, but student athletes in particular stand to benefit from getting to know their professors and classmates early on in the semester.

To varying degrees, college sports teams travel off-campus for games and competitions, which means student athletes might miss some in-person class time. Meeting with professors at the beginning of the semester can show a commitment to your studies and help hash out any scheduling conflicts for classes and exams.

Also, making friends with classmates can be beneficial for exchanging class notes to cover each other’s absences, as well as forming study groups.

Finding an Accountability Buddy

Student athletes know the importance of teamwork. In addition to pushing each other to greatness at practice and the gym, teammates can be a support system to help achieve your academic goals too. Forging a partnership or study group to hold each other accountable to these goals, on and off the court or field, is one such strategy.

For starters, who can better relate to your experience and challenges balancing athletics and academics than a teammate? Together, you and your accountability buddy can capitalize on downtime on the road to away games to tackle assignments or plan a study night before a big game to resist the urge to party.

It’s okay if your goals are different. The important thing is that you find an accountability buddy you feel comfortable with and who will help keep you on track.

Recommended: 5 Ways to Start Preparing For College

Prioritizing Health and Wellness

Both academics and sports can be demanding, and taking them on simultaneously requires serious stamina. Prioritizing physical and mental health by eating well, getting enough sleep, and finding ways to destress can help prevent burnout and stay sane. It’s okay to slip up every now and then, but creating a plan that you can stick to could make a difference in succeeding as a student athlete.

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It’s Okay to Ask for Help

Many college students deal with stress between exams and assignments. For college student athletes, the pressure to succeed athletically and academically can be a lot to handle.

There is no shame in asking for help, and the sooner the better. College tutors can assist with everything from proofreading essays to prepping for a chemistry test. Approaching professors early with any concerns could also help with extra credit opportunities or a chance to redo an assignment.

Recommended: The Ultimate Guide to Studying in College

What About Redshirting?

For Division I athletes, the NCAA regulation grants college student athletes a span of five years to compete in four years of athletic competition. For Division II and Division III students there is a 10-semester, or 15-quarter clock. This means that student athletes may take a year off from competing ― a practice known as redshirting ― as long as they continue taking coursework and meet other eligibility requirements.

Traditionally, redshirting is applied to allow students athletes more time to develop or recover from a significant injury. However, student athletes may be able to use redshirting to their advantage in terms of coursework.

Redshirting may allow students to take a more manageable course load by stretching their degree over ten semesters instead of eight. Alternatively, it can provide extra time to complete both a bachelor’s and graduate degree in one go.

Keep in mind that redshirting guidelines vary by division. For instance, Division I and II athletes are permitted to practice with their team during their redshirt season, whereas Division III athletes may not.

💡 Quick Tip: Even if you don’t think you qualify for financial aid, you should fill out the FAFSA form. Many schools require it for merit-based scholarships, too. You can submit it as early as Oct. 1.

Paying for College

College is a big investment, but fortunately there are options for funding education. Financial aid, grants, work-study programs, and scholarships may be enough to pay for all or a portion of tuition and room and board.

Athletic Scholarships

There are some full-ride and partial athletic scholarships available to Division I and II student athletes. Athletics classified as headcount sports offer full ride scholarships to a certain number of athletes per team, whereas equivalency sports traditionally extend partial scholarships. Head count sports include the following:

For Men:
•  Division I basketball
•  Division I-A football

For Women:
•  Division I basketball
•  Division I tennis
•  Division I volleyball
•  Division I gymnastics

For equivalency sports, it’s up to the college and coaching staff to decide how to divide scholarship funds between student athletes.

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Student Loans

In the event that scholarships, grants, and financial aid are not enough to cover tuition and living expenses, student athletes can take out student loans to help them cover the difference.

Federal student loans may be subsidized, which means interest won’t start to accrue until six months after you graduate, or they may be unsubsidized, which means interest begins accruing right away. Either way, you don’t have to start making payments until six months after graduation. Federal loans come with a fixed interest rate set by the government and don’t require a credit check.

If those do not cover your costs, you may also consider private student loans.

Private student loans are available through private lenders, including banks, credit unions, and online lenders. Rates and terms vary, depending on the lender. These loans do require a credit check and, generally, borrowers (or cosigners) who have strong credit qualify for the lowest rates.

Keep in mind, though, that private loans may not offer the borrower protections — like income-based repayment plans and deferment — that automatically come with federal student loans.

If you’ve exhausted all federal student aid options, no-fee private student loans from SoFi can help you pay for school. The online application process is easy, and you can see rates and terms in just minutes. Repayment plans are flexible, so you can find an option that works for your financial plan and budget.

Cover up to 100% of school-certified costs including tuition, books, supplies, room and board, and transportation with a private student loan from SoFi.

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