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The College Divisions

The College Divisions

Discover the differences between NCAA divisions (D1, D2, D3), NAIA, and 2-year programs to determine the best college fit for you.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) has three Divisions: DI, DII, and DIII. These Divisions differ in the level of athletic play, academics, and the amount of athletic scholarships or aid each team can offer athletes on their roster. In addition to the NCAA, many athletic opportunities can be found within the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), or the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). This article guides you through each division to help you identify which may be most compatible with the college experience you envision for yourself.

NCAA Division I Programs: The Most Athletically Competitive 

What Type of Athlete Plays NCAA DI?

The NCAA Division I is the highest-ranked division in the United States. It’s known for its high level of competition across all NCAA college sports. Usually, high school athletes who play at this level are at the top of their game athletically. 

What are DI Schools like?

Division I college programs can be found across the country! They are usually larger, with a median undergraduate enrollment of around 8,960 students. Today, there are 350 member schools nationwide, with over 190,000 student-athletes competing at this NCAA level. Playing at the Division I level is highly competitive due to the skill level and because there are a limited number of programs and roster spots available. 

Do DI Schools Offer Athletic Scholarships?

At the NCAA Division I level, college coaches can offer athletic scholarships to student-athletes. Depending on your sport, you may be eligible to receive a full or partial scholarship. Scholarships are broken down at the Division I level by either Head Count or Equivalency Scholarships. To learn more about scholarships and how many are available in your sport at the Division I level, check out our Athletic Scholarships Page.

Keep in mind that Ivy League schools do not offer athletic aid. Ivy Leagues can only provide academic scholarships, merit-based scholarships, and financial aid. To learn more about how to pay for college without athletic scholarships, you can review here the alternative forms of financial aid and determine if you’re eligible for each.

How Do I Know if I Can Play for Division I? 

Playing at the Division I level is very competitive. If you are still determining if you can play at that level, we encourage you to contact your athletic advocates. Athletic advocates could be anyone from your high school coach, club coach, or trainer. These people are typically very familiar with the style of play across the divisions and can advise you on which division they think would best fit you. 

What Can I Expect as a Division I Student-Athlete? 

As a Division I athlete, you will be expected to have a year-round commitment to training. At this level of competition, dedicating a significant portion of your time to training and team travel is expected. You must manage your time effectively to ensure you are staying up on your academics, which is an integral part of being a student-athlete and maintaining your eligibility. 

NCAA Division II Programs

Playing at the Division II collegiate level is still competitive. However, athletes at these schools can generally expect to spend less time on training and competition than their Division I counterparts. At the DII level, student-athletes must have one day off per week from athletics activities during the competitive season.

How Many Division II Programs Are There?

There are 312 member schools today, making it the NCAA division with the fewest athletic programs. NCAA DII programs can be found across the country and across all of the NCAA-sanctioned sports. 

What are DII Schools Like?

The NCAA Division II is known for its dedication to helping student-athletes balance their academic and athletic endeavors while encouraging them to engage in their community. Most DII schools (89%) have fewer than 7,500 students, so they can foster a more personal learning environment. Due to the smaller size of DII compared to its counterparts, student-athletes have a higher opportunity to participate in championship play. Active community engagement and a commitment to inclusivity further define Division II, providing student-athletes with a well-rounded and prepared foundation for life beyond college.

Do DII Schools Offer Athletic Scholarships?

Division II programs are able to offer partial athletic scholarships depending on the sport, with very few being able to offer full athletic scholarships. You can find the exact number of scholarships available in your sport at the Division II level here.

NCAA Division III Programs

If you want a more balanced college experience, then Division III may be the perfect fit for you. While DIII student-athletes remain dedicated to their sport, they also have more time to focus on a more holistic college experience. At the DIII level, student-athletes have more significant opportunities to participate in clubs, study abroad, or even play multiple collegiate sports. 

How Many Division III Programs Are There?

Currently, 430 schools and nearly 200,000 students are participating in NCAA Division III athletic programs across the United States. This makes Division DIII the largest of the three NCAA divisions in terms of total member schools. This doesn’t necessarily mean it’s the easiest level of competition. However, it does mean if you are interested in the DIII level, there are plenty of schools to look at! 

What Are DIII Schools Like?

On average, DIII schools have around 2,500 students, with almost a third of those being student-athletes. Division III prioritizes a well-rounded collegiate experience, balancing rigorous academics, competitive athletics, and various co-curricular opportunities. These schools value a love for the game without the pressure of athletic scholarships and focus on the impact of athletics on participants. This mentality fosters personal growth, emphasizing teamwork, discipline, perseverance, and leadership. With a commitment to broad-based programs and regional competition, Division III integrates athletics seamlessly into campus life, subjecting student-athletes to the same standards as the general student body.

Do DIII Schools Offer Athletic Scholarships?

No, Division III does not offer athletic scholarships. However, there are other ways to help pay for college. Many DIII student-athletes apply for alternative scholarships, such as academic, merit-based, or financial aid. Learn more about scholarships and financial aid here.

NCAA Academic Eligibility Number

You will only need your NCAA Academic Eligibility to play at the Division I or Division II level, as it’s not required for Division III. Having an NCAA Eligibility Number indicates that you are academically eligible and have maintained your amateur status. 

You will not need to worry about this until your Junior or Senior Year in high school, and it is very easy to obtain. You can sign up for an NCAA Eligibility Number right on the NCAA Eligibility Center website, which can be found here.

NAIA Programs

The National Athletics Intercollegiate Association (NAIA), is a college athletic association separate from the NCAA. The NAIA has roughly 250 member institutions offering programs across all major sports and is home to over 80,000 student-athletes annually. NAIA schools are usually smaller in size and provide a great lifestyle balance for student-athletes. NAIA can also offer partial athletic scholarships. 

To play at the NAIA level, you will need to register with the NAIA Eligibility Center and create a profile at PlayNAIA.org. You will submit NAIA-specific documentation verifying you meet all NAIA eligibility requirements there. Setting up your eligibility center account typically takes only a few minutes. Once all documents are submitted to the NAIA Eligibility Center, it generally takes 3-7 business days for the NAIA to complete the review process. Still, it may be longer for transfer students or if the athlete has submitted multiple transcripts.

NJCAA Programs

The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), also referred to as Junior Colleges (JUCO), are 2-year programs. If you are still deciding if you are ready to attend or participate athletically at a 4-year college or university, a Junior College could be an excellent fit for you. Many student-athletes who attend Junior Colleges intend to transfer to a 4-year university after completing their 2 years. Many college coaches at JUCO programs have built strong relationships with the staff at nearby 4-year schools and can help facilitate conversations about transferring.

Junior Colleges are an excellent choice for student-athletes still deciding where they want to study or play for the next 4 years. Depending on the school and the sport you play, athletes may be eligible to receive either a full-ride scholarship or a partial scholarship at a Junior College.

How to Find Your Best Fit Schools in Each Division

Use the SportsRecruits Advanced School Search tool to find every school in the country in the divisions you care about most. Add additional filters, such as size of school, majors offered, and location, to narrow in on your target list of colleges. In several sports, you can also filter down to schools actively recruiting your class year and position.

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