Visa expert explains how SA students can study in the US on a sports scholarship

A female student studying at a library. Picture: Supplied

A female student studying at a library. Picture: Supplied

Published May 27, 2024


There are excellent opportunities for South African matriculants to study at American universities on a partially or fully funded sports scholarships.

According to Tyler Hollingsworth, the Business Director at Sable International Study Abroad Sports, the USA has one of the largest education systems globally, with over 4,000 institutions, including five of the top ten ranked universities according to the QS World University Rankings 2022.

“Most of the universities have quality sports coaching and offer an excellent opportunity to take promising sporting talent to a higher level,” said Hollingsworth.

If you’re a matric student doing sport and looking for opportunities to study abroad, here are some of the options available to you.

The university landscape in America

According to Hollingsworth, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), is the major governing body which oversees a community of universities.

“Within this community of schools is Division One, Division Two and Division Three. Interestingly, some of the best academic institutions compete at division 3 athletically. Division 3 institutions are more focused on academics.

“They offer great sports and have great coaches, but not at an Olympic level,” said the travel expert.

What type of sports scholarship opportunities are there for SA school leavers?

Hollingsworth revealed that there was a large crossover between South African and American sports: “Rugby is growing in North America, as they build to hosting the 2031 Rugby World Cup.

“The USA has really taken to rugby with over 400 universities that compete regularly, not all at an elite level, but the majority of the programmes are extremely competitive.”

He added that soccer was also growing rapidly, and many South African players can play at college and university level while studying and earning their degrees.

“Traditionally, scholarships are offered to sports like tennis, cross country, athletics, and golf. There is a difference between individual and team sports.

“It’s easier for students who compete in individual sports, like athletics, where success and results can be measured, however, the lines are more blurred when it comes to team sports,” said Hollingsworth.

He highlighted that though a student may have had an incredible rugby, soccer or hockey match, a coach could disagree, and it could be more subjective when it came to team sports.

Studying at an American university is expensive. To what extent would your costs be covered?

The travel expert highlighted that the level of the institution played a part when it came to costs.

“If you consider the elite universities that are more academically focused and also play sport at a very high level, then students will need to be both academically and athletically strong to go for free.”

Students had to be competing at a provincial and national level to be considered.

He added that since it was very expensive for students to get into elite universities due to the high fees and fierce competition, a way around was to apply to a division two level university, a lower tier institution where you'll get much better offers.

“They'll play at a division 2 institute for a for a year to prove to the college community that they can compete at this elite level, get good grades and then you can apply to transfer to a top tier university.”

“You can move around. It's a lot easier to get in being a transfer than to get in first time at an elite level university,” he said.

How do the scholarships work with visa eligibility and getting visas?

According to Hollingsworth, in order to study in the USA students need an F1 Student visa.

“A three-year visa is initially given, and then they'll have to get a visa renewal to complete their studies. For example, if a student’s first visa is for 3 years, their renewal will be for another 3 years to complete their final year of undergraduate studies, and they would have the option to do a one to two-year master's programme.

“Alternatively, after graduation, they can complete their optional practical training (OPT) enabling students to work in their field of study for one full year,” he said.

He added that if students studied subjects within the science, technology, engineering and mathematics (STEM) fields, they could get a further three-year visa extension.

“This allows graduates to work for three years, and if they build a strong relationship with their employer, the company is more likely to want to invest in them and sponsor their working visas in the future,” said the travel expert.

When is the best time to for students to get the process started?

Hollingsworth said that it was best to start in Grade 9, before students selected their subjects for Grade 10.

“American institutions looks at the subjects offered and the difficulty of those subjects.

“However, Grade 11 is the most common scenario, this allows us time to correct any academic issues and to manage the process post matric and heading into admission season in August, but to get the most from the process, Grade 9 is the best time to join,” he said.

Challenges with studying abroad on a scholarship

And lastly, Hollingsworth said that being an athlete on a scholarship was very challenging as students also had to hold up academically.

“If they start failing or underperforming academically, they are pulled from the team. There are many challenges kids face at university, it’s difficult to adapt to that lifestyle. But, at the end of it, they love it. It’s the cost of greatness.

“It takes a lot of hard work and dedication, but that’s how elite athletes are made,” he said.