What NCAA division is right for you

What NCAA division is right for you

NCSA Recruiting

What NCAA division is right for you


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. Kyle Winters was a standout high school pitcher who tossed seven scoreless innings in a major tournament during his senior year. That performance against some heavy-hitting future MLB draft picks helped Kyle earn a full-ride scholarship to the University of New Mexico. However, Kyle opted to play professional baseball and was drafted by the Florida Marlins in the fifth round and played seven seasons for various minor league teams. Kyle 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.

1973 was a big year for college sports. Bill Walton and the UCLA Bruins dominated men’s basketball and the football “game of the century” had to be Notre Dame’s nail-biting 24-23 victory over Alabama in the Sugar Bowl. It was also the year the NCAA created three divisions to better align and organize schools by philosophy, competition, and opportunity.

The NCAA Divisions Today

Today, according to the NCAA, there are 347 Division I schools, 309 Division II schools, and 442 Division III schools. To give you a better idea of size and how they divisions compare, about 176,000 student athletes compete at the Division I level. A little more than 118,000 student-athletes compete in Division II and Division III has just under 188,000 student athletes on its various rosters.

Another difference, as you may know, is that all DI and DII athletes must meet certain eligibility requirements set by the NCAA whereas Division III eligibility requirements are set by the school.

One fact most parents would be interested to know is that for the small percentage of high school athletes that end up playing at the DI and DII level, only about 56 percent of DI athletes receive some type of athletics aid and DII athletes fair just a little better at 60 percent that get athletics aid.

While DIII schools do not offer any type of athletic scholarships, parents will be pleased to know that 80 percent of DIII athletes receive non-athletics aid, often in the form of grants or need-based scholarships to academically qualified athletes. Another big plus for both parents and student-athletes is that 87 percent of all DIII athletes graduate from college. Although the other two divisions are not that far behind, that’s the highest percentage of any NCAA Division.

READ MORE: NCAA: Our Divisions

Behind the Roman Numerals: What’s it Really Like?

You will find there are plenty of facts and figures about each division, but as is most often the case, they really only tell part of the story, or sometimes give the wrong impression. For example, even the rank order of the divisions may imply to some that anything below a Division I program is somehow settling for second best. While it’s true DI offers a higher level of competition and is home to some of the largest and most prestigious schools in the country, it does not mean there are not stellar opportunities to compete at world-class colleges in Division II and Division III.

In fact, many high school athletes who have the physical size, athleticism, and grades to compete at the DI level opt to go to a DII or DIII school for a variety of reasons. It maybe they just wanted to go to a smaller school, stay closer to home, or a chance to study abroad. And for some, they just didn’t want their college experience defined by the demanding lifestyle of a DI athlete.

As your son or daughter begins to look at all of their college options, it’s important to understand the different college experiences for athletes in DI, DII and DIII programs. Here’s a quick breakdown of what to expect:

Division I: Your sport, your life

For NCAA Division I athletes, the rewards are many. Competing at a large university in front big crowds against some of the best athletes in your sport. But just know the competition for your spot on the team is fierce and your time is not your own–that includes weekends. Practice, training, travel, and study. There’s also volunteer work. You will be tired. Internships, spring break getaways, even part-time jobs are pretty much out of the question. The DI athlete is truly dedicated to their sport for the next four years. For some, it can be overwhelming-even exhausting. But almost everyone would say they would not trade their DI experience for anything.

Division II: A more balanced approach

Student-athletes who want a high level of competition but a more balanced approach to sports and academics are giving serious consideration to DII schools. It’s also perfect for those who may prefer a smaller campus, or the opportunity to get playing time all four years. As one recruit put it, “I’d rather be a big fish in a smaller pond.” There are still the demands all student-athletes face, but it is not nearly as intense and rigorous as the year-round total commitment of a DI athlete.

Division III: A well-rounded college life

DIII programs offer a well-rounded college experience where academics take more of the lead. Just like their DI and DII counterparts, DIII athletes also must learn to manage playing their sport while pursuing their education. The time commitment, however, for DIII athletes is not nearly as intense which gives them more opportunity to explore life outside of the classroom and outside of their sport. DIII athletes often feel they are more a part of the general college community where DI and DII athletes feel a little siloed or separated from the rest of the college or university.

While nearly everyone starts out thinking DI is the ultimate goal, it really comes down to what type of college experience will be right for your child. The good news is that the three divisions offer something for every type of student-athlete.


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