The student agrees to attend the institution full-time for one academic year, and the school agrees to provide athletics financial aid for the year.
The letter was created back in the 1960s. Supporters say it's designed to organize the recruiting process.
When the contract is signed it means other colleges and universities participating in the program are no longer allowed to recruit you.
For many students, the binding contract works out well. But for some, the college agreements sometimes end in heartache, regret and lawyers' bills.
Hockey player Dryden McKay of Downers Grove told the I-Team his first signing experience with this powerful document was a nightmare.
In 2016, McKay signed to play at College of the Holy Cross. He said he realized soon after that the school was not the right fit, the financial aid package was not what he expected, and that his family couldn't afford the tuition.
He asked to de-commit, but he said the school refused.
McKay said he was devastated to learn breaking the contract could cost him a year of eligibility.
If an athlete wants out of the NLI to attend another school, they have to ask for release from the program. If that is not granted, they would have to sit out a season, meaning they lose a year of eligibility.
Or the students can go through an appeals process, but that still doesn't guarantee a release without penalty.
Even though NLIs are voluntary -- it says so on the first page of the contract -- that frequently seems lost on students recruited by the 655 schools that participate in the program.
Once the NLI is signed, it's a binding deal, even if the coach who recruited you leaves.
Chicago attorney Peter Rush is part of a growing legion of critics who want the NLI overhauled or thrown out. They say the contract is too one-sided, taking away rights from the students and favoring the institutions.
Rush's advice is to forget the NLI and only commit to a financial aid agreement with the school.
But students who pass on signing the NLI risk losing a scholarship or the ability to play their sport at a specific school.
Some elite athletes have been able to negotiate deals without signing the NLI, but recruits with only a few offers may lack the leverage not to sign it.
The NCAA manages the daily operation of the NLI program. In an emailed response to the I-Team, a spokesperson cited statistics to show the system works for the majority of those students who participate.
According to the numbers, of the more than 1,200 requests for release, 93 percent got one without a penalty. And of the 30 appeals recorded for 2017-2018 enrollment, 24 were denied.
Susan Peal is the NCAA's director of the national letter of intent. In her response she said, "Statistically, this is a very low number who appeal when compared to approximately 46,000 prospective student athletes who sign."
Several Chicago-area high school coaches told the I-Team the program has generally been fair to their students. But most did agree the contract would be less one-sided if students could back out penalty-free if a head coach leaves the college they committed to.
The NCAA declined to speak on camera but said that change could be considered at a meeting next month.
CLICK HERE to read the NCAA's NLI Status Report for 2016-2017
In the NCAA's emailed response Peal said, "There has not been serious consideration for a head coach departure exception until recently. This has surfaced now as discussion in collaboration with potential changes to the NCAA transfer rules. A head coach departure reception is currently being discussed and may be considered by the Collegiate Commissioners Association (CCA) as early as this June. The NLI data does show that institutions are granting complete releases due to coaching change at a high percentage. Last year 6 releases in Division I were denied due to coaching change."
Dryden McKay was ultimately released from Holy Cross after a second appeal.
This statement on behalf of the college was provided to the I-Team:
"Because of student privacy laws, the College cannot discuss any specific student information. In general, the National Letter of Intent is a binding agreement, and entirely voluntary. No student is required to sign an NLI. Students make this voluntary commitment to a school only after they and their parents or guardians are fully informed of all aspects of the agreement. College of the Holy Cross follows the same industry-wide practices and guidelines governing all 650 Division I and Division II schools that use the NLI."
McKay has been playing in the junior league for the Madison Capitols in Middleton, Wisconsin. Despite all the financial and mental anguish he recently signed another NLI to play hockey this fall at Minnesota State.
WHAT YOU NEED TO KNOW ABOUT THE NATIONAL LETTER OF INTENT