Comparing Competition Levels in College Sports
College sports are separated into different levels of competition — the NCAA and NAIA for four-year institutions, and the NJCAA, CCCAA, and NWAC for two-year schools. Each level is designed to cater to student-athletes with different goals in mind. Additionally, within each level, there are sublevels and subdivisions that offer athletes unique opportunities. Regardless of where athletes are in their athletic careers, there are options to continue and play in college.
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is an organization that governs and regulates athletes from over 1,000 institutions. The NCAA is made up of three divisions — Division I, Division II, and Division III. Each institution under the NCAA falls into one of these divisions, which have unique rules about scholarships and recruiting.
NCAA Division I
Among the three NCAA divisions, Division I schools generally have the biggest student bodies, manage the largest athletics budgets and offer the most generous number of scholarships. Schools that are members of Division I commit to maintaining a high academic standard for athletes in addition to a wide range of opportunities for athletics participation.
Many of the most well-known athletics programs are part of the NCAA Division I. Some of the most notable conferences include the Pac-12, Big 12, Big 10, Southeastern Conference (SEC), Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), and Ivy League.
Academic Eligibility and Financial Aid
Division I institutions typically have larger budgets for athletic scholarships and can offer more full and partial scholarships than other divisions. There are academic requirements for students who receive athletic financial aid which can be found here.
To get recruited to play in Division I sports, there is a recruiting calendar that gives a timeline for the recruiting process. Division I sports have the most detailed calendars, so it is crucial to stay on top of important dates and times. More information about the recruiting calendars here.
Division I FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision)
NCAA Division I institutions are further subdivided into the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). The main difference between these two is postseason play. FBS teams play in bowl games which determine which four institutions will play in the College Football Playoff. The FBS can also offer more full scholarships to athletes. These institutions also have a minimum attendance requirement at their home games, which must be met once in a two-year rolling period.
The Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC), Big 12, Pac-12, and Southeastern Conference (SEC) are just some of the conferences that play under the FBS. The biggest names in college football play in this subdivision — institutions like the University of Alabama, Clemson, and Louisiana State University.
Division I FCS (Football Championship Subdivision)
Unlike FBS teams, FCS teams play an NCAA-sanctioned bracket tournament that ends with the NCAA Division I Football Championship. FCS institutions are still allowed to give full scholarships, but more often than not, they give athletes partial scholarships. These institutions also do not have any attendance requirements for home games.
NCAA Division II
Division II is a collection of more than 300 NCAA colleges and universities that provide thousands of student-athletes the opportunity to compete at a high level of scholarship athletics while excelling in the classroom and fully engaging in the broader campus experience. This balance, in which athletes are recognized for their academic success, athletics contributions and campus/community involvement, is at the heart of the Division II philosophy.
There are almost as many Division II institutions as there are Division I. Some of the most well-known Division II institutions are the University of California – San Diego, Bentley University, and Truman State University.
Academic Eligibility and Financial Aid
While most Division II institutions offer full scholarships for athletes, most are partial athletic scholarships. They have the same academic eligibility requirements as Division I schools and athletes can apply through the NCAA Eligibility Center.
Division II sports also have recruiting calendars that athletes must follow. Most Division II calendars are not as intensive as Division I calendars, but athletes still must keep track of dates and times. More information about the recruiting calendars is available here.
NCAA Division III
Division III is the largest division in terms of the number of institutions and the athletic participants in the NCAA. Division III is unique in not awarding athletic scholarships due to its unwavering commitment to the academic success of every student-athlete. The opportunity to play sports in college is a privilege, but we often forget taking part in collegiate athletics is also a choice. When high school seniors decide to be Division III student-athletes, their choice illustrates their passion for the sport and pursuit of an education.
The Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference, and the American Southwest Conference are among the best Division III conferences in athletics. Some of the more recognizable names that are Division III institutions are Amherst College, Tufts University, and Johns Hopkins University.
Academic Eligibility and Financial Aid
Division III institutions do not offer athletic scholarships, but they can still offer financial aid packages for athletes. Additionally, the NCAA does not have any academic requirements for enrolling in these institutions.
Division III sports do not have recruiting calendars. Athletes looking to play in this division can be contacted and recruited year-round.
Difference Between DI, DII, and DIII Athletics
DI, DII, and DIII athletics are all different in their own ways, but each provides student-athletes with the opportunity to learn, compete, and ultimately succeed. Division I schools usually have the largest athletic budgets and the most school spirit, which also means more demand on the athletes’ time. Division II schools have smaller athletic budgets but still compete at a very high level, fostering a great balance between academics and athletics. Of the three divisions, Division III schools have the smallest athletic budgets and are less demanding on athletes, while still giving them the opportunity to compete.
National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA)
The NAIA is the intercollegiate athletic association that has a broader focus — developing athletes to their full potential and helping them meet their overarching goals.
How the NAIA is Different from the NCAA
The NAIA is similar to the NCAA Division II in terms of size and play but consists of more private schools and fewer regulations than the NCAA. Similarly to NCAA Division II, these institutions offer mostly partial scholarships and only some full scholarships.
It comes down to priorities. If you want to play for a nationally competitive program at a reasonable price, while driving enrollment and supporting the school’s bottom line, the NAIA is the best association for you. NAIA schools measure success not just by game scores, but by their financial bottom lines, too. Their NCAA counterparts spend an average of 60 percent more on athletics. Regardless of their size, all schools are in competition for students.
National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA)
The NJCAA is the governing association of community, state, and junior college athletics. Joining an institution in the NJCAA is a great route for athletes to improve their skills, gain playing experience, and work on their academics in a college setting.
Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC)
The NWAC is an association of 36 community colleges that are located across Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and the Canadian province of British Columbia which offers seven men’s sports and eight women’s sports. Like the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA, the NWAC has its own eligibility rules, which can be found here.
Athletic recruiting for the NWAC is confined to 10 states — Washington, Oregon, Alaska, California, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Hawaii, Utah, and Wyoming — and the province of British Columbia. However, if athletes are interested in playing for one of these institutions and they are outside of those areas, they can take certain steps to become eligible and play there. More information about these steps can be found in the NWAC Information Guide for Non-contiguous/International Student-Athletes.
California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA)
The CCCAA is an association of 108 community colleges located across California offering 12 men’s sports and 12 women’s sports. The CCCAA also has its own eligibility rules, which can be found here.
Each college in the CCCAA has its own defined recruiting area where they are permitted to recruit student-athletes from, but exceptions can be made. There are exceptions for students who are outside of the recruiting area but still in California, and different exceptions for students outside of California. These, and more information about CCCAA athletic recruiting, can be found in the CCCAA Constitution.
How Junior/Community Colleges are Different from NCAA and NAIA Colleges
Compared to NAIA and NCAA, the junior and community college conferences are much smaller. These programs are only two years, offering athletes the ability to study and play for two years and then transfer to a four-year NAIA or NCAA program.
How College Athletic Division Should Impact School Selection
College division should be considered by athletes aspiring to play in college, but it shouldn’t be the only factor in making a decision about which schools to pursue. Athletes must consider their athletic and academic goals, and how each school will help them achieve those goals. It is also important to think about the campus environment and financial aid, which will both impact their college experiences. Ultimately, they should weigh every single element when deciding what school to attend.
- Skill level
There are skilled athletes at every level. Oftentimes, athletes who are looking to develop more athletically and/or academically will choose to play at a junior college before moving onto a four-year program.
- Overall goals
When deciding where to play in college, it is important that athletes weigh their overarching goals in the decision-making process and consider what they want as players and people.
- Campus environment
Campus environment is extremely important and should be evaluated in addition to athletic division. Each campus will have its own unique feel and athletes should visit each school they are considering attending to ensure they would feel comfortable playing and living there.
- Financial need
There are financial aid options at every institution. NCAA DI and DIII schools offer athletic scholarships along with most schools that participate in the NAIA, NWAC, and NJCAA. While NCAA DIII programs don’t offer athletic scholarships, they do offer competitive academic scholarships and other financial aid packages to student-athletes.
Finding schools and considering where to play can be challenging. With their coaches and support system, athletes must evaluate the future based on their realistic skill level. It is important for athletes to understand the different levels of competition so that they can make informed and honest decisions about where they belong.