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International student athletes in the US – a Global North affair?

International students with enough athletic prowess can really change the game for themselves - hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition can vanish if you’re at the top of your game in football, basketball - even tennis or rowing.
July 18 2023
4 Min Read

International students with enough athletic prowess can really change the game for themselves – hundreds of thousands of dollars in tuition can be waived if you’re at the top of your game in football, basketball, even tennis or rowing.

This is the case that can be made for a very small minority of student athletes from outside the US who want to study in the country where tuition fees are the most expensive on the planet.

Plenty of scholarships are indeed available, even down to activities like chess, esports and the non-contact version of American football, flag football.

But how accessible they are to international students – especially those hailing from countries outside the Global North – is very much in contention.

In data from the National Collegiate Athletics Association, the top three home countries for first year, division one student athletes hailing from outside the US were Canada, the UK and Spain.

This was followed by Germany, Australia, Sweden, the Netherlands, France, Norway and Italy – all countries classified as Global North nations.

It’s important to note, of course, that the amount of international student athletes represented varies greatly by sport. In women’s tennis, for example, 66% of its athletes in that portion of data were classed as international students.

In men’s American football, perhaps naturally, that percentage point crashes to 2%.

Those team sports generally provide more scholarship places to begin with but the competition is fierce. And that’s just including the domestic athletes vying for a study place with a full or even partial scholarship.

“One of the biggest challenges is that those markets where it’s easily accessible for college coaches – that’s where most choices are made [on which athletes are selected],” Jake Shoemaker, who works in service delivery in the sports recruitment division at Crimson Education, tells The PIE News.

“With regard to something like basketball, it’s generally not a sport where coaches really need to try hard to leave the US to seek talent.

“And when coaches are travelling overseas, they have specific spots where they just know talent comes from. For example, in the rowing realm, there are a few spots in Australia where the elite academic institutions are always trying to pick kids up from Melbourne in particular – schools that just literally feed into UC Berkeley, Yale, Brown etc,” he notes.

“There’s this misconception everyone gets big full ride scholarships”

Crimson has sent athletes to the US from across the globe, some coming from Asia Pacific and South America. But generally, the idea of the “big fish in a small pond”, where some elite student athletes from these areas firmly stand out from the rest, can work to their detriment.

“There’s always the the big fish in the small pond circumstance that sometimes exists in those countries where you’ll have someone who has the desire to come to the US, to take a collegiate scholarship or to compete athletically, but it’s really competitive to access scholarship funding.”

The calibre might still be exceptional, Shoemaker says, but another reality is that financial aid is going towards more needs-based scholarships and those based off of academic merit, leading to a so-called drain in the scholarship pool.

“It’s not a cheap thing to do. There’s this misconception everyone gets big full-ride scholarships,” Keystone Sports’s Stewart Stanbra tells The PIE.

“That’s actually a very small percentage of people. The reality is most people have to invest the money into this to be able to go, and we know how expensive the US can be.

“Some people can get really good deals and that’s what we endeavour to do – matchmake the best way possible – but generally you need some kind of budget,” he adds.

The other issue that remains for recruiting in countries more aligned with the Global South – which, in academic terms, see hundreds of thousands of students attend colleges in the US every year (India and Nigeria to name two) – is that, for recruitment agencies, certain sports pose bigger challenges.

“We’ve helped some tennis players from India in the past, for example, but generally [sports recruitment agencies] don’t have necessarily the expertise in a sport like soccer; you need to assess on a subjective level and we don’t get to go and see them, but with a track and field or a tennis player where there’s a ranking, you can potentially help based on objectivity,” Stanbra explains.

“Generally you [still] need some kind of budget”

One student athlete from India who recognised the enormity of his dream is Tejaswin Shankar, a high jumper who said he thought it was “some sort of scam” that the opportunity was afforded to him.

“My travel, education and stay were all free. I thought it was some sort of kidnapping racket,” he told Indian press after winning a bronze medal at the Commonwealth Games in 2022. Crucially, representing India, having studied at Kansas State University on an NCAA track and field scholarship.

With such a large volume of general students coming from a country like India – and lots with prowess in various different areas, including both academia and sport, Shoemaker touches on the fact that often families have to make a choice.

“The placement process for international student athletes is another big hurdle. If a kid really wants to travel thousands of miles to go to the US to participate in sport, the family also has to value whatever academic opportunity exists in front of them – some will say any academic opportunity is more valuable,” Shoemaker notes.

While the system seems to be less open to those from the Global South at this time, the consensus seems to be that if current mindsets can shift, more student athletes at US colleges could well come from India, Nigeria, and even China – from which the general student numbers are already sky high.

“So many people grow up and have sports be an integral part of their identity, how they structure their time and how they find balance in life – to pursue that at the collegiate level can be so important for some,” Shoemaker concludes.

“I think that the NCAA needs to prioritise [widening access] if that’s going to shift and ultimately be the ones that are responsible for facilitating camps.

“I think that if they make that accessible, open up the doors for coaches, then those at less funded programs would be able to see athletes in those countries in a way that’s simple and easy for them.”

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