An Athlete's Perspective - Mark Fallaize - USA Athletics Scholarships

An Athlete’s Perspective – Mark Fallaize

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Mark Fallaize shares his story about his brief NCAA experience. Away from the glitz and glamour there are some real takeaway lesson in his article. It only goes to show that prior research about all factors, athletic and academic alike, can make or break your time out there. Be wary of the bigger picture.

Choosing to study in the USA as an international student and collegiate athlete could leave you without a degree – if for some reason you need to complete it in the UK.

Opinions about America, the NCAA, the college education system and its culture and lifestyle vary depending on who you talk to, but if for whatever reason you are unfortunate enough to find yourself prematurely returning home to the UK – whether it be down to a loss of eligibility, loss of scholarship or homesickness – you could be in serious trouble, at least from an educational perspective.

To give you a little background information, at the age of 17 I was at college and decided I wanted to go to the United States and compete in the NCAA. However, two years, one BTEC Sports Science Diploma and a couple of bad seasons later, this wasn’t particularly high on my agenda.

Two years of college had made me realise that Sports Science wasn’t a route I wanted to follow and by the age of 19 I had a full time job, working from 8-4pm as a computer network technician in a local secondary school. I did this for three years until I realised I wanted to take my training more seriously and the concept of running in America resurfaced. By this point I was twenty two and as you probably already know, once you surpass your twenty-first birthday, the NCAA starts to deduct years of eligibility from you. I was offered two years of eligibility, which I was more than happy with.

My first semester in America I realised I didn’t like the Computer Science degree I was doing and, because international students have to have a declared major to validate their visa, I transferred to Graphic Design. US colleges work on the basis of credit hours, which are usually two or three hours for each class that you complete per semester. The minimum for NCAA eligibility is twelve hours per semester.

Fast forward towards the end of my second year and just prior to returning to the UK, I had decided that I wanted to complete my degree and started the process of looking at UK universities and applying through UCAS. I had projected that by the time I left America I would have completed thirty hours of credit in my degree specific classes from a total of forty eight hours of total credit, as I had been taking the NCAA required minimum each semester. Your average US college degree is made up of 128 hours, so based on this I was looking at just shy of 40% of my degree.

Based on the degree I wanted to take and with athletics still clearly a major factor in my choice of institution, I decided to write to each of the admissions officers at UWIC, Leeds Met and Loughborough outlining my situation in order to get an idea of what options I had. After two years of university in the US I thought that indicating that I was looking to join a course on the second year was perfectly acceptable. My first response was from UWIC, whose admissions officer was initially very keen. The response from his counterpart at Loughborough, in contrast, was very blunt, she had no interest in addressing my questions and I was continually informed just to apply through UCAS. I couldn’t even find contact details for the admissions to Leeds Met. Regardless, I applied to all three, with my point of entry selected as second year. Shortly afterwards, I received an email from the admissions officer at UWIC informing me that due to a higher number of applications, they wouldn’t be able to accept my application, not only in to the second year, but at all.

When the outcome of my applications started filtering through on my UCAS profile, unsurprisingly UWIC’s rejection came first, closely followed by a rejection from Loughborough. Fortunately not long after, I received a letter in the post from Leeds Met for a conditional offer pending an interview. The bad news was that they couldn’t offer me anything more than a provisional place on the first year of the course, but with tuition fees expected to rise the following year it was almost a case of now or never. Incidentally, it worked out that it would be cheaper for me to start a new degree as a first year in the UK than it would have been to complete my degree in the US anyway, even though the class fees at the university I attended were relatively meager. Certainly, one institution that contacted me whilst I was looking for scholarships boasted class fees of $50,000 per semester, which is a cost that I would never be able to pay without a scholarship.

My interview was successful and I received an unconditional offer, which I accepted. The next phase was to sort out my student finance. Anyone who has had to deal with Student Finance England will know how painful it is and how much work they are, and that’s if your application goes smoothly. Mine didn’t. After filling in the application process, initially Student Finance informed me that I was not eligible for a student loan at all. This was because, according to them, I failed to meet their criteria, which states that anyone applying for a student loan must be resident in the UK for at least 3 years up to the start date of their course, and because I had spent 2 years in America I failed to meet this criterion. True, I was out of the country for 2 years, but part of the F1 visa stipulates that the holder of the visa remains primarily a resident of their native country, not the country where the visa is held, so this was eventually overturned, following months of phone calls, emails and letters.

However, Student Finance also has a rule which states that they offer loans up to a maximum of 4 years of study. This means that after those 4 years if you still want to attend a university you have to fund it yourself. This didn’t seem like a problem because for the two years I had spent in America I hadn’t had any funding support from the UK. As far as Student Finance are concerned though, they penalise you for years of study regardless of whether you are being funded by them or not. This meant that they would only offer me 2 years of student loans, which meant that I had to pay my first year’s tuition fees up front. This is paid in a reverse format so I had to pay for my first year and Student Finance covers my second and third. Fortunately for me I was just in time and only had to pay £3,000, as if I had been a year later I would have had to have paid the new fee of £9,000, which would have meant I wouldn’t be able to go to university at all.

So to put this all in to context, if you were to lose your scholarship for one reason or another after 3 years at a US college and with another 2 years left until you graduate, your situation certainly wouldn’t be great. The first option would be to stay in the US and finish your degree as a regular international student. According to the College Board website, the lower and upper end averages for college tuition in the US for the 2011-2012 academic year are $9,000 and $36,000 respectively. Let’s say you’re fortunate and the college you attend charges $9,000, so all you need to graduate is $18,000 or just over £11,000. This is excluding living costs, of course, but the one benefit of the US is that the cost of living is lower than the UK. The catch 22 situation in the US though is that unless you’re an American citizen you are generally void of any financial aid from them, and because you’re studying outside of the UK, the British government won’t help you either, so all these fees have to be paid up front.

The other option is to return to the UK, but because you’ve spent 3 years in the US and Student Finance only allow each student 4 years of tuition fees, you’re only left with 1 year of financial support. Again, this means you have to pay your own fees yourself up front and because Student Finance reverses the years, it means they will pay for your final year. Ideal if you are able to get on to the third year of a course, but with tuition fees set to go up to £9,000 a year for the 2012-2013 academic year, you would be looking at paying between £9,000 and £18,000 for tuition up front depending on whether you were able to get on to the first or second year of the course.

This article is not intended to put you off. I can’t tell you that, from an athletics sense, my time in America is something that I look back on with any amount of joy, but in every other aspect the two years I spent there ranks amongst the greatest experiences of my life and I’d recommend it to anyone. However, I hope my experience will at least raise the awareness of what situation you could be in if it doesn’t quite work out how you would like it to.

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