USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the college recruiting process. Here, you’ll find practical tips and real-world advice on becoming a better recruit to maximize your opportunities to play at the college level. Jaimie Duffek was one of the top 50 high school softball players in Illinois who went onto play outfield for Drake University. Jaimie is just one of many former college and professional players, college coaches, and parents who are part of the Next College Student Athlete team. Their knowledge, experience, and dedication along with NCSA’s history of digital innovation, and long-standing relationship with the college coaching community have made NCSA the largest and most successful athletic recruiting network in the country.
I’m just going to put this out there: Division III programs are underrated. During the recruiting process, many student-athletes put so much attention on DI that they completely overlook the benefits of the other divisions. And out of all the NCAA divisions, DIII offers the most well-rounded experience.
There are 442 DIII programs across 34 different states. We talked to our Head Recruiting Coaches who played a DIII program, and asked them why it was the right fit for them. Here’s what they had to say:
- Dan Doyle, North Central College, basketball
- Andy Drake, Calvin College, baseball (also coached)
- Davide Harris, Lawrence University, baseball, All-American
- Emily Johnson, Ithaca College, soccer, National Champion and All-American
- Brian Baker-Watson, Benedictine University, football, All-American (also coached)
- Jason Smith, Aurora University, baseball, team captain and conference champions
Why did you decide to compete at the DIII level?
Davide Harris: I knew it was the best fit for me athletically—I wanted to find an opportunity where I could play early and often. My family also really valued academics and receiving an education from a reputable school.
Brian Baker-Watson: I felt that the smaller class size was the best fit for what I needed to academically succeed.
Jason Smith: I chose to attend Aurora University and play DIII baseball over other offers—from DI walk-on to DII and NAIA scholarships—because of the opportunity to play immediately and to compete for one of the top DIII programs in the country. Despite not having athletic scholarships to offer, Aurora ended up being the best financial option for my family.
How would you describe the level of competition?
Dan Doyle: High, very competitive. One of the top DIII men’s basketball leagues in the nation.
Andy Drake: Very competitive. I had two teammates who went on to play professional baseball—one was drafted in the 7th round. We also faced the No. 1 team in the country during the NCAA Regionals, and they had three players who would eventually be drafted. It’s not the same commitment as DI or DII baseball, but you still have to work hard to earn your spot.
Emily Johnson: The most competitive level I have played at: We played DI teams, like Cornell University and Colgate University, and competed with Big East teams and beat them!
What were some common misconceptions you’ve heard about regarding DIII sports?
Andy Drake: Too many people don’t take DIII athletics seriously. It’s truly very tough to stand out at that level. The other big myth is that DIII schools aren’t affordable. It’s true that they don’t offer athletic aid/scholarships, but you can receive merit and grant scholarships. Keep in mind that athletic scholarships aren’t always the best kind of scholarship. Other academic or talent-based scholarships will do the same thing—decrease the cost of the school.
Brian Baker-Watson: The most common thing I heard was that DIII athletics are like intramural programs. And this couldn’t have been further from the truth. Our coaching staff was dedicated to our overall development and had high expectations each season.
Read More: Do DIII Schools Give Athletic Scholarships
Did you find you had a good balance between athletic, academics and a social life?
Dan Doyle: DIII baseball provided a great balance for me. I was still able to have time to hang out with friends and do other activities on campus that were not associated with athletics. I had a campus job as well and was still able to maintain a double major and play baseball.
Davide Harris: I thought it was the perfect balance. Many DI and DII programs are similar to a full-time job. But at this level, I was able to find time to work on my studies and also enjoy college. I encourage student-athletes to have conversations about balance with coaches. Every recruit is interested in DI, but may later realize that they don’t want that commitment.
Jason Smith: I was able to take part in internships, mentor programs, and was a member of the first Student-Athlete Advisory Committee at Aurora University. Baseball was a big part of my experience, but I was able to graduate within four years and feel I got the most out of my time on campus.
Read More: Discover What DII Athletics Are Really Like
Why should current high school athletes check out DIII schools? Any advice for them?
Dan Doyle: If you want to have a great balance of sport, academics, and social activities, DIII is a great place to consider. Many of the best academic schools in the country (Johns Hopkins, MIT, Cal Tech, Washington University, etc.) are all DIII programs. Find the place that is the right fit for you, regardless of division level, and you’ll have a great experience!
Emily Johnson: Financial aid packages are very competitive, so don’t be shocked by the “sticker price.” Division III is not a lesser division and offers the most opportunities to play.
Brian-Baker Watson: DIII athletics can give you an opportunity to play sooner rather than later, and for some student-athletes, that’s a deciding factor. Also, you should be realistic with the kind of academic environment you need to succeed. Smaller colleges may have greater access to things like academic support, tutors, learning centers, etc.
Jason Smith: There are quality DIII athletic programs across the country. In fact, just about every season in baseball, there is a DIII program that beats a DI program in the spring season. Discounting a program based on NCAA classification is a mistake too many student-athletes make. And even though they can’t offer athletic scholarships, DIII programs can be surprisingly competitive with their financial aid packages.
Read More: What NCAA Division is Right for You?