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 athletes 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.
D1 schools have a reputation, and it’s a good one. Televised games, sponsored gear, preferential treatment. But is it all true? Is D1 really the best division out there?
With more than 1,000 colleges offering sports opportunities, I decided to look at every division to help answer this question. And what I learned surprised me—D1 could be the best, but so could D2, D3 and even NAIA. It really depends on your definition of “best.”
D1 is competitive—but so are other divisions
First, I decided to check out the odds of making the transition to the college level. According to the NCAA, nearly eight million students currently participate in high school athletics and only about 480,000 compete as NCAA athletes. Less than 2 percent of high school athletes (1 in 54) went on to play at NCAA D1 programs for the 2016-17 school year. However, an even smaller amount—1.3 percent to be exact—went on to compete at the D2 level. Overall, most college athletes compete at the D3 level.
This all adds up when you look at the number of programs available; across the country, there are 347 D1 programs, 312 D2 programs, and 442 D3 programs. But the point is that student-athletes who are unfamiliar with D2 programs shouldn’t assume it’s easier to get roster spots compared to D1. James Walton, NCSA recruiting coach and former D2 college athlete, explains how competitive D2 can be.
“I would constantly see athletes with Division I ability on the football field and on the track,” he says. “Being in the conference I was in (MIAA) allowed me to compete against the best-of-the-best in Division II, and I believe that was a big factor in the success I had in my sports.”
Read more: Discover what D2 Athletics are really like
Walton brings up a good point: there are different conferences within each division level, and this is where you may see some overlap. For example, the top conferences in NAIA are usually compared to D2 programs. Joe Leccesi, an NCSA Recruiting Coach, was a former coach at one the top NAIA programs and recalls beating D2 programs they competed against. “The players may be an inch shorter or a step slower than D1 players, but the competition is great.”
D1 may not be the best for scholarships
Not only can you find competitive opportunities outside of D1 sports, but you can also may find more scholarships. Recent data from the NCAA shows that 59 percent of D1 student-athletes receive some form of athletics aid, 62 percent of D2 student-athletes receive some form of athletics aid, and 80 percent of D3 student-athletes receive some form of academic grant or need-based scholarships.
Insider tip: Don’t overlook D3 programs because they don’t offer athletic scholarships. College coaches can offer financial packages that are made up of academic grants and need-based aid that can be extremely appealing for families and cover a hefty amount of tuition.
Read more: Do D3 schools give scholarships to athletes?
If your main reason for competing in college sports is so you can pay less for college, then D1 may not be the best division for you. Full-ride scholarships are rare and unless you’re one of the top players in the nation, you should expand your search to learn about every opportunity available.
D1 is not the best for me time or free time
Another major difference between D1 and the other divisions is the amount of free time you’ll have outside of your sport. Competing in a D1 sport is considered full-time job. From the beginning of your day to the end, your college experience will revolve around when you train. Even in the offseason, you’ll be expected to be on campus to practice. Kristin Heidloff, an NCSA Recruiting Coach and a former Division I athlete, recalled the longest winter break she ever had—5 days.
So, it’s important to keep in mind that your college experience goes beyond your sport, especially because you never know what could happen. For example, what if you’re injured? That’s why you need to think about your academics and social life when you’re researching colleges. Every division has something different to offer. D3 and NAIA programs tend to be smaller schools, while D1 colleges often enroll the most students. And D2 may provide you with the opportunity of playing all four years, while at a D1 program, you may be benched for the first three. Consider every factor that matters to you.
It turns out there is no universal “best” division when it comes to college athletics. Picking the school and program that matches your academic, athletic and personal preferences is what’s best. And you shouldn’t doubt that for a second.
Read more: How to find your best college match