Recruiting Column: Making sense of your college options

USA TODAY High School Sports has a weekly column on the recruiting process. This isn’t about where just the top five-star athletes are headed but rather a guide to the process and the pitfalls for student-athletes nationwide from Fred Bastie, the owner and founder of identifies appropriate colleges for potential recruits and delivers an online DIY college planning experience for student athletes of all talent levels and ages.

(Photo: Playced)

(Photo: Playced)

If you don’t know your college options, you really don’t have any college options.  That is why for most high school athletes, identifying realistic scholarship opportunities is the most difficult part of college recruiting.  If you aren’t being highly recruited, you have to find and pursue schools that match your athletic and academic abilities.  To find the right colleges, you really need to have a basic understanding of your options: NCAA Division I, II and III, the NAIA and the NJCAA (junior colleges).

The divisions within the NCAA are separated by the level of competition and the resources of their athletic departments. Division I offers the highest level of competition and Division I schools’ athletic departments have the biggest budgets. The purpose of the divisions is to create parity and a more level playing field in intercollegiate sports. Also, the divisions give smaller schools the opportunity to compete for championships.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or the NAIA, has over 250 member institutions and is an alternative to the NCAA when it comes to athletic scholarships.  Finally, the NJCAA is the governing board for sports at two year colleges.

Here is a breakdown of the various classifications to help you get an understanding of which one might best suit your interests and abilities.

NCAA Division I

Division I (“D-I”) is the highest level in the NCAA, consisting of schools in the U.S. with larger budgets, elaborate facilities and numerous athletic scholarships. There are nearly 350 D-I schools that field more than 6,000 teams and provide opportunities to more than 170,000 student-athletes.

At the D-I level there are two types of scholarships: head count scholarships and equivalency scholarships.  The differences are significant.  A scholarship in a head count sport is a guaranteed full-ride for at least one year, while an equivalency scholarship is typically a partial scholarship ranging from 25% to 60%. The head count sports are all at the D-I level and include Football (D-I FBS only), Basketball (Men’s and Women’s), Women’s Tennis, Women’s Gymnastics and Women’s Volleyball.  All other D-I sports are equivalency sports.

There are two exceptions to the scholarship rules at the D-I level.  The Ivy League schools compete at the D-I level, but they do not offer athletic scholarships.  The three service academies that participate in Division I FBS football (Army, Navy and Air Force) are effectively exempt from NCAA scholarship limits because all students at those schools receive full scholarships from the service branch that operates the academy.

NCAA Division I athletics is only for the most serious athlete.  Typically, the very best high school athletes go on to play at the D-I level and D-I athletes don’t mind making sacrifices for their sport.

NCAA Division II

Division II (“D-II”) is an intermediate level of the NCAA and consists of U.S. public universities and private institutions. D-II schools are a great alternative to the very competitive and larger D-I schools.  300 schools are part of D-II, with nearly 110,000 student-athletes. The average enrollment at a D-II school is slightly less than 5,000.  D-II colleges offer athletic scholarships in 40 sports ranging from Water Polo to Football, but very few D-II athletes receive full scholarships.

Balance is a key selling point of D-II athletics.  It offers a level of competition not significantly different from the D-I level, but there is not as much pressure. D-II coaches often focus more on balancing the athlete and student than they do on anything else.  While D-I schools often travel nationally to compete, regional rivalries are the norm at the D-II level.  Sometimes this less stressful environment and focus on player development actually helps an athlete reach his or her potential quicker.

D-II is a great alternative if you are not quite ready to compete at the D-I level, you want an experience that focuses on your development as a student-athlete and/or you haven’t been recruited by any D-I colleges in which you have an interest.

NCAA Division III

Division III (“D-III”) is the largest of all of the NCAA divisions. In Division III, there are nearly 450 institutions and more than 180,000 student-athletes.  A big difference in D-III is that there are no athletic scholarships. However, a majority of the athletes qualify for some form of academic or financial aid.

In Division III, the emphasis is on the value of competing in sports to the athlete. There is less focus on generating revenue or creating events for spectators.  D-III colleges range in size from 500 to more than 20,000 students.

D-III athletics are great for athletes whose focus is in the classroom. They have limited practice and competition times, as well as less travel between schools.


The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (“NAIA”) is a great alternative to the NCAA and the competition levels are similar to NCAA Division II and III institutions.  The schools are typically smaller and allow colleges and universities outside the United States as members.

The NAIA offers athletic scholarships and sponsors a total of 13 sports that participate in 23 (12 men’s, 11 women’s) championships each year. The NAIA has in excess of 250 member colleges and universities for athletic competition with over 60,000 student-athletes.

The NAIA is great for athletes who want a smaller campus environment, competitive athletics and/or athletes who haven’t been recruited by any Division I colleges in which they have an interest.


The National Junior College Athletic Association (“NJCAA”) consists of community and junior colleges across the United States. The NJCAA is the governing board for sports at two year colleges.  NJCAA colleges offer athletic scholarships and sponsor a total of 24 sports.  There are over 600 member colleges in the NJCAA.

NJCAA schools are an ideal alternative for a student athlete seeking to develop both academically and athletically in an affordable and competitive environment. Many times a junior college can be used as a stepping stone to a four year university.  In fact, many four-year degree schools offer extremely discounted tuition rates to students who have an associates’ degree (2-year) from an in-state junior college or community college.

(Photo: Playced)

(Photo: Playced)

Your options

So, now that you know your options, pick the one that best fits your abilities and personal preferences and identify which colleges you prefer.  Then pursue your athletic scholarship as if you are looking for your first job!

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