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Choosing the Colleges for Athletes

Student athletes are usually glued to the television come draft day. Watching the dreams of other student athletes come true can be motivating, but writing down the names of institutions sending students off to the draft isn't the best way to figure out what college to attend. Yes, Michael Jordan spent two years at the University of North Carolina and Troy Aikman attended the University of Oklahoma and later UCLA, but the biographies of successful sport stars are no way for aspiring athletes to chart their course.

It's time for them to figure out their own playbook.

Choosing the schools for jocks

Making the decision on the best school to attend is a matter of assessing which institution is right for the student athlete--and that shouldn't be based on who happens to be the coach at the time, or how many students were sent to the draft last year--although these certainly can be deciding factors for many (Think of runner Steve Prefontaine, who attended the University of Oregon to work with coach Bill Bowerman, who later founded Nike). Though a large university with a strong NCAA tournament presence may lend more visibility to athletes, those who choose to attend smaller colleges may excel and thrive while still receiving plenty of notice.

Student athletes are expected to excel in both their chosen sport and their academic studies. Therefore, schools that have a low graduation rate for student athletes might not be the best choice. Student athletes should look into colleges that make a clear effort to keep grades high while allowing students to excel on the court or field. Many schools make a point of this with mandatory study halls, tutors and academic advisors always on call, and graduation rate requirements for team members.

Also consider the terms of scholarships offered to student athletes. Some scholarships are withdrawn if a student can't play on the team; that means one sidelining injury could cost dearly. A school that offers a scholarship for the duration of the degree program, regardless of playing status, can provide more peace of mind.

It is fine to narrow down the options based on the teams. However, once the short list of schools is set, approach the final decision with the mindset of a person who will not be playing sports. Focus on academic achievement, financial issues and student life. You may choose a school that excels on all of those points in addition to offering a fantastic team that will test the mettle of any athlete who makes the cut.

6 tips for student athletes

High school student athletes who are planning to play sports in college need to begin preparations long before they receive their diploma. Here are a few tips to make the transition easier.

  1. Understand the rules. When it comes to college athletics, eligibility is everything. Determining eligibility starts in high school, so it is important to understand every rule set forth by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA.
  2. Perfect time management skills. When attending college full-time, time management is crucial. Add a sport into the mix and suddenly time becomes a precious commodity. Make the most of it by perfecting time management skills long before setting foot on campus.
  3. Focus on academics. Making the grades in high school can make it easier to get into a chosen college. Taking core courses that are required by the NCAA is a step toward eligibility.
  4. Do your homework. Pay attention to college statistics, keep up with what teams and coaches are doing, and scan the news for information on both NCAA violations and victories. It is important to be familiar with the teams and their colleges long before the time comes for a campus visit.
  5. Check on health insurance. Most student athletes think that their school will pay for any treatment for injuries sustained while in practice or in a game. Many parents think their insurance will cover what the school won't. Unfortunately, both assumptions could be very wrong. Ask detailed questions about what is covered and what is not, and get the answers in writing.
  6. Start healthy habits. Eat right, get plenty of sleep, exercise safely and learn how to manage stress. Making healthy habits second nature right now can make the transition to college life much easier.

What if the big leagues aren't in the cards?

Having a solid "Plan B" matters. There is no doubt that the performance and reputation of a team matters, but in the end, the academic opportunities of the college matter more.

Keep expectations realistic. Even a career in the big leagues will eventually come to an end. When it does, a backup plan can provide peace of mind. Earning a college degree may lead to a successful career long after the jersey has been retired.