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The Difference in the College Division Levels

Difference in college division levels.

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. And that’s just the NCAA. There's also the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) with more than 250 schools and of course many options at the junior college level for high school athletes. While there are some similarities, you'll find each college option is somewhat unique.

For example, one difference is that all DI and DII athletes must meet certain eligibility requirements set by the NCAA. Division III eligibility requirements are set by the school.

Student-athletes and parents should note 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.

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The surprising DIII difference

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.

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What's it really like?

There are plenty of facts and figures about each division, but they only tell part of the story, or may give the wrong impression. For example, 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 divisions II and III.

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 athlete begins to look at 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:

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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 and off season. 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 every one would say they would not trade their DI experience for anything.

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Division I and the Ivy League 8

Some of the oldest and most prestigious schools in the country make up the Ivy League. Brown University, Columbia, Cornell, University of Pennsylvania, Harvard, Princeton, and Yale rank among the top 20 NCAA Division I schools. More than 8,000 student-athletes compete every year for these schools. Most choose the Ivy League for its ultra-high level of competition in both athletics and academics. If an Ivy League school is on your target list, just note that these schools do not award academic or athletic scholarships. Financial aid is based on need determined by the Financial Aid Office at each school.

Insider tip: Time management is key. Learn from a former DI how you can manage your workload better with these Nine Time Management Tips.

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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 as intense and rigorous as the year-round total commitment of a DI athlete.

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Division III: A well-rounded college experience

DIII programs offer a more 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 more separated from the rest of the college or university.

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Why an NAIA school might be your best bet

It may come as a surprise to some but the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) has actually been around longer than the NCAA. With about 250 mostly private, smaller schools, more than 60,000 student-athletes compete at NAIA colleges in a variety of popular sports. Many consider NAIA to be on par with NCAA DIII schools when it comes to life/sport balance and level of competiveness. The NAIA awards close to $500 million in athletic scholarships every year. That, along with more aggressive recruiting is driving more talent to these schools and bringing up the level of competition. Today, top-level NAIA schools are considered to be similar to competing on a NCAA DII team.

Read more What is the NAIA and what does its schools have to offer

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Don't ignore junior colleges

Our focus here is on the three NCAA divisions and NAIA schools but that doesn't mean you don't have other options. There are many common misconceptions about what junior colleges can offer a student-athlete and that's why they often get overlooked. Today's junior colleges have a lot to offer when it comes to scholarships and other cost-savings. For some athletes, junior college is the best path to getting a four-year college roster. For others, it's a chance to stay close to home, earn college credit, and continue on with their athletic career.

Read more Find out why junior college is a smart choice for some student-athletes

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 with three NCAA divisions, NAIA schools and junior colleges, there's something for every type of student-athlete.

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