College Sports Divisions Explained

So, you want to play college sports? There are so many schools, so many options and too many confusing acronyms and terminology. The first step to figuring this all out is to get a basic understanding of the structure of collegiate athletics. If you are seeking an athletic or academic scholarship, it’s especially important to understand where you may fit. Here is a breakdown to help guide your decision-making.

It All Starts with the NCAA

The NCAA was founded in 1906 and was called the Intercollegiate Athletic Association until the name changed to the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) in 1910. The NCAA is a nonprofit organization that oversees college sports and student-athletes at approximately 1,100 institutions across North America. According to the NCAA, its member schools annually award more than $3.6 billion in athletic scholarships to more than 180,000 student-athletes. It sets standards for play in an ever-expanding roster that currently includes 24 men’s and women’s sports – from football and basketball to softball and water polo.

In 1973, the current three-division system of Division I, Division II and Division III was adopted to help create an even playing field for teams from similar schools. Establishing separate divisions created more gender parity and gave smaller schools with fewer resources the opportunity to compete for championships. Each division has rules about scholarships, eligibility and how they can allocate their resources.

Division I

The highest level of intercollegiate athletics consists of 350 schools. These are the athletic programs and championships you most often see on television. Its conferences include the “Power Five” – the Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big Ten Conference, Big 12 Conference, Pac-12 Conference and Southeastern Conference (SEC) – and its schools typically have the largest student bodies, athletics budgets and sports facilities. Division I schools can offer the most athletic scholarships to prospective student-athletes, so they are usually able to attract the top talent. Schools must meet minimum financial aid awards for their athletics program, and there are maximum athletic financial aid awards for each sport that can be allotted. Student-athletes must go through the NCAA clearinghouse and meet standard eligibility requirements.

Examples: Clemson University, Florida State University, Georgetown University, Ohio State University, UCLA

Division II

With 310 schools, Division II offers high-level competition with smaller athletics budgets. These schools are able to provide partial athletic scholarships with maximum financial aid awards for each sport. While many Division I teams travel around the country to compete, Division II teams are more likely to face regional competition. Division II schools can range in size from tiny private colleges to mid-sized and larger public universities. Division II student-athletes must also meet NCAA eligibility requirements.

Examples: Ferris State University, Grand Valley State University, Pittsburg State University, Saginaw Valley State University, University of Central Oklahoma

Division III

Approximately 194,000 student-athletes compete in Division III for its 400+ schools. While they may not have the biggest athletics programs, these schools sometimes offer a wider variety of sports. Each Division III school sponsors an average of 18 sports. Division III teams do not offer athletic scholarships, but they can attract scholarly student-athletes with academic scholarships. Unlike Divisions I and II, Division III schools set their own eligibility requirements.

Examples: Carnegie Mellon University, Case Western Reserve University, Texas Lutheran University, University of Chicago, University of Mount Union

What About the NAIA?

There are 249 colleges and universities that belong to the smaller National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) – a completely separate organization than the NCAA. The NAIA includes mostly small colleges and has grown in recent years as an alternative to Division II or III. It is made up of two divisions (I and II) and contains numerous conferences for championship competitions. The NAIA has fewer rules and allows for athletic scholarships.

Examples: Arizona Christian University, Benedictine College, Cumberland University, Keiser University, Langston University

Where to Play?

There are so many factors that go into deciding where to go to college. First and foremost is the type of education and academic setting you’re looking for. Which colleges and universities offer a degree in the field you’re looking to get into, assuming you don’t become a professional athlete? Do you want to go to a smaller school or a bigger school? Would you want to be in a large city or a small town? Do you want to stay close to home or move to a different part of the country? Once you figure that out, then consider the athletics. Look for college programs that fit both needs.

Obviously, money is a factor as well. When seeking an athletics scholarship, most high school coaches recommend casting a wide net and keeping an open mind about your search. “A DI or bust mentality isn’t a good approach,” says head football coach Jason Mohns of Saguaro High School in Scottsdale, Arizona. “Don’t chase clout, but good opportunities. Opportunities to play come in all divisions.”

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