Can Student-Athletes Study Abroad?

The time you spend in college will be filled with new and exciting experiences, whether it’s the experience of owning your first car, your first time living away from home or your first internship. At some point during college, chances are that you WILL feel overwhelmed and become convinced that there’s no way you’ll get to experience everything you wanted to. “I wish I could have an extra year,” you might say, or “I wish I hadn’t wasted my freshman year partying/sleeping that much.” At some point, you might see yourself having to choose between two things you consider very important to you. On one side, you want to go through the experience of living abroad – immersing yourself in a different culture, learning another language, and becoming more independent. You know that if you don’t do it now, you might never have another chance to do it. On the other hand, you don’t want to give up on the chances of playing the sport you love so much, and you’re pretty sure that if you tried to go abroad, your coach will tell you to not even bother coming back. In most cases, I find that athletes chose to stay, continue playing their sport, and postpone the dream of living abroad. But is there a way to do both?

Are NCAA student-athletes allowed to study abroad? Absolutely! With proper planning and good communication with coaches, you CAN study abroad and still maintain your four years of eligibility. Thankfully to a recent NCAA rule (which became effective in 2017), the path for student-athletes to study abroad without their eligibility being affected became a lot easier. This is how:

New NCAA Rule

Previous to 2017, it was significantly harder for an athlete to study abroad without damaging his or her eligibility. Due to the five-year rule, student-athletes have a period of 5 calendar years to use their 4 seasons of eligibility. So if an athlete redshirted as a freshman or used a year of medical redshirting, he or she would only have 4 years to use 4 seasons of eligibility. That would make it impossible to go abroad for a year, unless the athlete decided to give up on a season of eligibility. 

Thankfully, the NCAA has been making several efforts recently to make sure student-athletes are given the same opportunities as non-athletes. In 2017, a new rule came in place, which establishes that if a student-athlete decides to go abroad, the five-year clock will stop until he returns from the program abroad. The most recent version of the NCAA manual (2018-2019) shows this rule as rule number, and this is what it says:

Time spent participating in a full-time study-abroad program during a regular term of an academic year may be excepted from the application of the five-year rule, provided: (Adopted: 1/19/17 effective 8/1/17)

(a)   The institution recognizes the student-athlete as a full-time student at the time he or she participates in the study-abroad program;

(b)  At the time of participation in the study-abroad program, the student-athlete is academically eligible for competition and is not subject to an athletically related suspension;

(c)   The student-athlete does not participate in practice or competition with the institution’s team and does not engage in outside competition while participating in the study-abroad program;

(d)   The student-athlete satisfactorily completes the study-abroad program; and

(e)   The student-athlete earns a baccalaureate degree within five years or fewer.

As long as the five criteria above are met, the student will not have to give up on a year of eligibility. This is actually very exciting, as student-athletes did not have such great opportunities to study abroad in the past. The tables below show how this rule would apply in a couple different scenarios:

Example A

YearStatusYears of Eligibility Remaining
2018Playing (Freshman)3
2019Studying Abroad (Sophomore)3
2020Playing (Junior)2
2021Playing (Senior)1
2022Playing (5th-Year Senior)0

Example B

YearStatusYears of Eligibility Remaining
2018Redshirt (Freshman)4
2019Playing (Sophomore)3
2020Studying Abroad (Junior)3
2021Playing (Senior)2
2022Playing (Graduate Student)1
2023Playing (Graduate Student)0

As you can see, this rule gives you more options on how to use your 4 seasons of eligibility. With good planning, you might even be able to play through grad school and potentially receive some scholarship.

What About Your Undergrad Scholarship?

This rule sounds great, but how do the scholarships work? Certainly, a coach will not be willing to let you go abroad for a year, not compete at all, and then come back to the roster with a scholarship?

Actually, the NCAA has also created a new rule that will hopefully motivate coaches to accept having their athletes studying abroad. Rule number in the NCAA bylaws establishes that

“All countable financial aid of a student-athlete who is participating in a full-time study-abroad program pursuant to Bylaw is exempt from an institution’s equivalency computation. Countable financial aid in an amount equal to the countable financial aid provided to the participating student-athlete may be provided to a student who already has enrolled in the institution and is a member of the team for the term or terms of participation in the study-abroad program. (Adopted: 1/19/17 effective 8/1/17).”

This is what this rule looks like:

  1. Athlete A is on a sports team receiving a scholarship that covers 40% of his expenses per year;
  2. Athlete A decides to go abroad for the following year and he/she is eligible according to rule;
  3. Athlete A is eligible to maintain his/her 40% scholarship while abroad;
  4. In order for the team not to suffer from the absence of Athlete A for the year, the 40% scholarship Athlete A is receiving will not count towards the scholarship limit (it will be considered financial aid);
  5. That 40% that would be given to Athlete A is now available, so the coach can give it to Athlete B during that year.

Sounds like a pretty cool deal across the board right? It sounds like now more athletes can benefit from scholarships while also having the opportunity to study abroad. At the same time, with thorough planning, coaches can benefit from the rule by bringing in different players. In theory, it sounds great; However, I’m interested to see how this will play off in reality. I’m assuming coaches will be somewhat reluctant to have their players leaving and not competing for a year. Nonetheless, it is great to see that the NCAA is making moves to provide new opportunities to student-athletes. Now, it’s up to the athletes to take advantage of them.

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