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College 101

NCAA vs. Division I, II, and III
Article Type: Quick and Dirty


The National Collegiate Athletic Association is the organization that is responsible for almost all inter-collegiate athletic competition. All of the big college-sporting events that you can watch on ESPN are run by the NCAA.

March madness, the BCS bowl series, the College World Series, all of them are NCAA events. These competitions almost always consist of Division I schools, but the NCAA also oversees two other divisions. Division II and Division III are the other options for college athletes that fall under the NCAA.

There are many differences between the different divisions, but most of them you will never have to worry about. Also, the recruitment information and timelines differ depending on what sport you play, so be sure to check the recruitment calendar and recruitment guidelines for your specific sport. Both of those can be found in the links section of each division below. It's mostly coaches who should be worrying about these rules, but it's nice to know that a coach isn't calling you back simply because he can't, not because he didn't like your voicemail.

"The Big M."


Division I

This is the big leagues of college athletics. It is a heavily funded, scholarship dense, publicly well-known organization that prides itself on having the best athletes. In many ways, this is true. Division I athletes tend to be populated by Olympic hopefuls, future professional athletes, and superstars. Division I athletics cater to the athlete aspect of the student-athlete.

A high level of competition drives Division I sports. Because it is considered the pinnacle of amateur athletic competition, scholarships are abundant in Division I. Almost every DI program offers extensive scholarships, but it also depends on your sport. While you probably will not get a full ride, partial scholarships can make a huge difference when paying tuition. Don't take our word for it—ask your parents what they think.

Division I also receives its fair share of attention. Whether it be national media coverage with your highlight reel being featured on ESPN or just everyone on campus knowing who you are, Division I athletics is the place for stars to shine and grab the campus spotlight. All that attention combined with the level of competition provides a stepping-stone to the life of professional athletics. Almost all players who end up in the NBA, MLB, or any other professional league began their careers in college. Believe it or not, even some of the superstars were college students before they made it big in the professional game.

However, it is also important to note that playing a sport at a Division I college does not guarantee you fame and fortune, or a spot on the San Francisco 49er's for that matter. Almost 170,000 athletes competed at the DI level in the 2011-2012 school year. Do you know all of their names? Didn't think so. A large majority of high school stars will play at Division I schools, but only the best of the best will make a name for themselves there.

Regardless of how many people on campus are screaming your name at every Saturday night game, the commitment that is required of a Division I athlete is extreme. It will be more physically and mentally grueling than any team you have been on so far. Combine that commitment with the pressure to succeed and you have a stressful 4 years ahead of you. There is so much money tied in with Division I athletics that the concept of developing the athlete into a fully-functioning adult has taken a back seat to winning. Some DI coaches treat their athletes in impersonal ways, viewing them as a means to a victorious end. This focus on winning records and job maintenance has resulted in a higher transfer rate for Division I schools.

Bet on Division I if… you have been heavily recruited by Division I schools. you have competed at Olympic trials or the Olympics themselves. you have won national championships. you don’t mind making a lot of sacrifices for your sport. you think you want to be a professional athlete.

You can view all of the requirements for Division I athletics here.

You can search for all Division I schools here. You can register as a potential NCAA recruited athlete here.


Division II

Division II resides directly underneath Division I and is the middle child of the NCAA. It functions as a slightly less competitive alternative to Division I that is not as driven by money. Athletes playing at the DII level may not have been the MVPs of their high school leagues, but they still have a strong commitment to their sport and enjoy playing in highly competitive matches. Division II coaches often focus more on balancing the athlete and student aspects of a student-athlete than they do on winning every single game.

Balance is the key selling point of Division II athletics. It offers a level of competition that is not far off from the Division I level, yet there is not as much pressure as the highly visible Division I. Though you will find very few full ride scholarships, many partial scholarships are available at the Division II level. Although they are as not as abundant as the Division I level, there is still enough money for there to be a chance of you receiving some aid with tuition. Again, ask your parents; any aid is good aid.

Division II can also be a stepping-stone on the road to professional athletics, but it is slightly more difficult than Division I. Sometimes the more balanced environment and focus on player development can actually help an athlete reach their potential faster and easier than at the Division I level. What a concept.

There is less attention for Division II athletics relative to Division I. You will most likely not feel like the star on campus. Well, maybe you will, but not many others will recognize you as you stroll around the quad, hot stuff. Your face won't be plastered on giant posters flying around campus, because there won’t be any posters. You will also have to deal with people who view your athletics as a waste of time and resources. To some people, Division II athletics is a joke. If the athletes who compete at that level were any good, they would be at Division I schools. Most people don't agree with this ignorant stance. We're just warning you that those people are out there. How you deal with them is up to you.

Bet on Division II if… you have been recruited by some colleges. you think the pressure of Division I will be too much for you. you want an experience that focuses on your development as a young adult. you don’t think that you will be a professional athlete. You can view all of the requirements for Division II athletics here. You can find all of the Division II schools here. You can register as a potential NCAA recruited athlete here:

Division III

Division III is the lowest division that falls under the NCAA. It is considered by most people to be the most relaxed competitive experience of the three divisions, with a focus on the student aspect of a student-athlete.

Division 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. All of this combines for a situation that makes it much easier to find success in the classroom. Because of time restraints, coaches will not be able to control your life as much as DI or DII coaches could. Therefore, Division III can be a great option for athletes who want to play their sport in college but want to focus more of their time and effort on the great education they're receiving.

Division III does not have the same prestige or level of competition that Divisions I or II have. Though DIII athletes are still committed to their programs, they tend to lead more well-rounded lives than athletes at the other two levels. Don't get us wrong—this difference in emphasis does not mean that Division III is not competitive. Do you know many dedicated athletes who don't care about winning or losing? Exactly. DIII student athletes are still competing for a national championship, they would just prefer to spend less than 30 hours per week sweating in the gym.

Bet on Division III if… your primary focus in college is your education. you were not the star of your high school or club team. you are not interested in any scholarship money. you do not want media interaction. you know you are not going to be a professional athlete. You can view all of the requirements for Division III athletics here. You can find all of the Division III schools here.  You can register as a potential NCAA recruited athlete here.

NAIA, Junior College, Community College, City College

There are a multitude of other options for college athletics other than NCAA. That’s right, we said other. Although the NCAA may seem as inescapable as the evil empire sometimes, there are more rebellious organizations that will allow you to play college athletics with a bit more freedom.

The rebels fighting against the evil forces of the NCAA provide a different experience for college athletes. The strict rules that govern the NCAA are often softened in the other leagues. There are different age limits and more flexible requirements for eligibility. There are 2-year options like Junior and Community colleges that can be used as stepping-stones to be accepted into a 4-year university. It might be your best bet to spend a year or two at a Junior College to build your résumé and athletic abilities. There is no shame in that, and it's often the smarter option, both academically and athletically.

There are also 4-year options outside of the NCAA where you can get your degree and still play college athletics. The NAIA is the main organization that fits this bill. Like the Community and Junior colleges, the NAIA has less strict rules in terms of age and eligibility requirements. If you are worried about your GPA or test scores, the NAIA might be the organization for you. Because of its more lenient requirements, the NAIA often has players who are better than athletes in the NCAA. These athletes might not be able to make it to a NCAA school financially or academically. Therefore, the level of play at NAIA can be varied, so do your research to see if it's a good fit for you.

Don’t be afraid if your top school is not affiliated with the NCAA. Remember that many good options fall outside of the norm. That doesn't necessarily make them lesser opportunities. It just makes them different. As long as you like the school and the athletic program, it doesn't matter what governing body the college falls under. Everyone is different; every athlete follows a different path. Make sure you pick the one that will help you develop into the best graduate you could be.

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