Can someone tell me how financial aid works for D3?

I know I’m “borrowing trouble” from the distant future, so you don’t need to tell met that, but I’ve become really curious and I have so many questions.

I know that D3 schools don’t give sports specific aid, but are kids prioritized for other kinds of aid? Is playing D3 a realistic option for a kid who isn’t full pay, and doesn’t get into one of the handful of schools that meet full need?

To be clear, I guess what I’m asking is, I feel like one of the goals of sports recruitment is that it might get a kid into a school that would be a lottery for them otherwise. It makes their application stand out.

But if a kid’s stats are just average for the school, they aren’t going to get merit aid right? Are they prioritized for need based aid?

It really depends on the school. Many D3 schools offer merit scholarships that are not solely based on grades and test scores. They may take into account leadership, hard work, and accomplishments that athletic experience can help a lot with. These types of scholarships are relatively common, although they may require extra applications. They are not prioritized for need-based aid or stats-based merit aid.

Caveat: I’m an athlete at a D1 school in a niche who walked onto the team. I looked at some D3s, but I was not offered a recruiting slot at any of them.

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An athlete at a D3 school gets the same need based financial aid as she would if NOT an athlete. As mentioned by @CiaraFin, there may be things that being an athlete brings to help get a merit award, like leadership, but schools will NOT give more to an athlete.

What being an athlete can do is help with admissions as the coach can give a slot or a tip or whatever that school calls it. The coach can also make sure the student athlete gets every award she has earned, so if the athlete is a biology major and that school has a special award for bio majors, the coach can make sure her name gets in the pot for that award.

If you want money for athletics, you have to go D1 or D2.


Need based aid will be calculated by colleges using their financial aid formulas, regardless of athletic participation. Academic merit is awarded based on admissions criteria, regardless of athletic participation. Athletic scholarship is awarded according to NCAA rules (which for D3 is a hard no) and how a specific coach chooses to use their budget.

I think the thing you need to keep in mind is for the “average” kid, athletics isn’t going to be the golden ticket most parents hope for. An “exceptional” player will get a bit of leeway in academics, more for helmet sports and less for others but will likely still need to pass an admissions preread. An “exceptional” student with athletic ability that is not “exceptional” may get a walk on opportunity. The overall number of college athletes relative to the number in high school is pretty sobering.

Fyi I think there are financial aid prereads, just like academic ones, so, depending on the school, you could know ahead of deciding to go ED what the finances look like.


Also keep in mind that outside of the highly selective schools, there is quite a bit of discounting going on which isn’t so much about merit or need but more about targeted pricing. This is usually packaged as some sort of university merit aid. I’m not familiar enough with D3 recruiting to know how this works for athletes who commit and apply ED. Just thought it worth pointing out that even outside that top tier of schools with super generous need-based aid, there are solid schools where a seemingly ordinary or average student will likely get some sort of merit aid to bring the cost down closer to state flagship.

As mentioned, at the schools with good need-based aid athletes can usually get a financial aid pre-read during the recruiting process and before they decide where to commit. Usually at schools with automatic merit aid the coach will be able to help figure out the numbers prior to commitment also.

To be very cynical, I would say that part of the reason that D3 schools recruit athletes is to increase the number of students who need little to no financial aid…



I guess I had this idea that maybe playing a sport would help him get into a school that had good need based aid, so that even if he didn’t get a scholarship, it might lead to him getting a better education than he would otherwise get.

But, since he says he wants engineering, and it seems like there are very few engineering schools that meet need, and that the more likely outcome is that he’d do all the work, get recruited at a “reach” school, and then would need to turn it down and go to either an in state school, or if he really wants to play, get recruited at a school where his stats are near the top so he gets lots of merit aid. Because I can’t really see how, if he needs the help of sports recruiting even to get in to the school, he’s going to get merit aid if his primary extracurricular isn’t considered.

I guess the exception would be either if he gets a D1 or D2 scholarship, or if he gets recruited to one of the handful of full need schools that have engineering. But those seem like huge long shots.

Athletes are treated just like everyone else for merit or need based aid. The NCAA checks this stuff and some schools have been reprimanded for small things like giving too much work study (or the best jobs) to athletes in proportion to non-athletes. Another school was cited for giving too much need based aid to hockey players and the school had to defend that they did, but the awards were mostly to Canadians and based on US dollars vs Canadian.

Some D3 schools have so many athletes that schools can get around that by giving everyone merit aid.

Unless he is playing D1 football or basketball, an athletic scholarship will likely be partial (a quarter or third most likely). Depending on your income level, many families are financially better off with their athletic recruit kids in equivalency sports going to a school with generous need based financial aid. You just need to run the NPC and work with the coaches to see what your net costs will be.

It’s definitely a balancing act between need based awards and athletic awards, but stacking athletic awards with merit or outside scholarships can be done. I have a friend who only started with a 10% swimming scholarship at Fordham but ended with a full tuition scholarship. Her brother played baseball and also had a pretty big scholarship at a California school. I know lots of lax kids (and girls don’t wear helmets) that have 25-100% scholarships. They are good, and often are playing at schools that really wanted them.

Yes, I had in mind the discounting or merit aid that applies to all, or nearly all, students, not just athletes. This is happening for a large chunk of regular students at many smaller colleges. I’m not clear when in the process a D3 recruit would get clarity on that at some of these schools. I agree it can’t appear to be based on athletics.

As said above, many schools will give the coaches/family not only an admission pre-read but a financial pre-read. It might not be the final numbers but it is a good guess.

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D2 and NAIA do give athletic scholarships, though, correct? If for baseball, most likely partial ones, I assume, right?

Yes, D2 and NAIA give mostly partial scholarships but can be quite generous, especially when stacked with merit.

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As mentioned, the need based or merit aid he’ll get at a D3 is exactly what the same non-athlete student would get. Unlike an athletic scholarship, that aid won’t go away if he stops playing his sport.

As you noted, the true value of being a recruit at a selective D3 is that it is a ticket to the admit pile when most qualified applicants are facing a seemingly more random process.

You might want to look at Union (NY), Tufts, Swat, Trinity (CT) and WPI to see if their engineering programs are of interest. Union definitely offers merit. All are D3. Various levels of admissions difficulty.

Bucknell, Lafayette, and Lehigh are all D1 but not at the level of big conference schools if the LAC style environment appeals but you are looking for pure athletic scholarships.

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OP here,

I went and ran a few NPCs. Since I obviously don’t have real grades and test scores, I gave my kid perfect grades and test scores on the NPC’s to see what the maximum automatic merit would be.

The schools that meet full need came back great. Way below our in state. Our in state, I think we could come up with, although it depends on where his sibling goes. But the other schools, like WPI or RPI were out of reach.

For civil engineering, there are only 4 “full need” D3 schools. MIT, JHU, Tufts and CWRU. Union, Swat, and Trinity don’t have civil. So, for any other D3 school, a ticket to the admit pile wouldn’t mean much.

At this point, it’s just curiosity. Lots could change, my kid could stop playing, or decide he wants to major in something else, or our finances could changes.


I’m not where your home state is or if your high school participates in this program at RPI but our HS gives one of these out every year to a high school junior. Not all students take advantage of the award but a few have. It is just something to make note of as he gets older.

Thanks! @helpingmom I’ll look into RPI. I ran their NPC and it came back around $40K, but maybe this would change that.