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Best Colleges for Student-Athletes

Top colleges for student-athletes

NCSA Power Rankings recognize the best colleges for student-athletes. What makes a school “best” for student-athletes? There are several factors student-athletes consider when choosing the right college or university including size, location, academics, and cost, just to name a few. NCSA analyzes schools by what matters most to athletes and families to offer a comprehensive list of the top athletic programs in the U.S.

The 2021 NCSA Power Rankings are based on proprietary analysis using 2019 NCSA Favorites which identify the most desirable schools according to over 2 million current high school student-athletes on the NCSA platform, 2021 U.S. News & World Report Best Colleges, and the U.S. Department of Education College Scorecard‘s 2018 graduation rates and 2019 institutional net cost from the average cost after aid.

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How to choose a college that’s right for you

Choosing a college that’s right for you can be a difficult process. But if you take the proper approach, things will go a lot more smoothly and you’ll be more likely to be satisfied with the results. Stick to these steps when choosing a college:

  • Identify colleges that offer the right fit, academically
  • Identify colleges that offer the right fit, athletically
  • Identify colleges that offer the right fit, financially
  • Identify colleges that offer the right fit, socially

If you want to know how to find the best college, identifying colleges which offer the right fit will surely increase your chances of having a successful college career. In the following section, we cover each fit more in depth and offer some tips for what to look for.  

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Finding the right college (what to look for)

  1. Academic fit: Being offered an athletic scholarship doesn’t guarantee your acceptance into a school—you must qualify academically, too. If your GPA or test scores were to go up a few points, how many new doors might open? You can use Parchment’s website to easily compare where your grades and test scores stand among other students and see your chances of being admitted into a specific college. Also, think about what you’d like to study in college and how much time you need to focus on academics outside of your sport. Ask the coaches how other athletes manage their course loads and find out if potential teammates are studying your major. Hear from a former D1 college coach about how critical academics are in the recruiting process.
  2. Athletic fit: While Division 1 offers a high level of competition, less than 2% of high school athletes go on to play at that level. Focus your efforts on finding the division level that is the best fit for you. Target schools where you can make a valuable contribution to the team. That might be Division 2, Division 3, NAIA or even junior colleges, all of which offer great opportunities and scholarships. Learn the differences between divisions to understand which one is right for you. Watch this video to hear a former D1 coach share how college coaches determine whether a recruit is the right athletic fit for their team.
  3. Financial fit: How much can you afford and how much aid are you eligible to receive at each school? Athletic scholarships are only one form of financial aid, and amounts can vary depending on a number of factors including sport, team size and equivalency vs. headcount sports. Cost should be top-of-mind when pursuing programs—be sure to find out what kind of financial aid and scholarship options are available at each school you consider. Check out these tips on how to find a school that’s the right financial fit for your family.
  4. Social fit: This will be your home for the next four years, so you’ll want to choose a school where you’ll be comfortable. Soak in the environment when you go on campus visits, including the location, size, dorms and social vibe. Ask other students what they like about living on campus to see if you can picture yourself there. Don’t forget to consider how far you are from home and even the weather. It’s beneficial to keep a checklist of which personal preferences matter to you most as you research schools. Hear advice from NCSA recruiting experts on how to pick a school that’s a good social fit.

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College search tips

Student-athletes typically have a couple dream schools in mind when they begin their recruiting journey. But the chances of coaches at those schools recruiting their position and offering a scholarship might be slim. That is why we tell every student-athlete to keep their options open, research several programs and build a school list to maximize opportunities and find their best college fit.

Insider Tip: NCSA has a College Search feature, where you can easily filter through schools based on your specific athletic, academic and college fit criteria. Get started with a free recruiting profile today!

Starting early in high school, student-athletes should begin to build a list of potential colleges. This list should include five safety schools, ten target schools and five dream schools.

  • Target schools: These are the schools where you have the most realistic chance of getting in and will be the right fit not only athletically, but academically, financially and socially.
  • Dream schools: Maybe these schools are a stretch academically, where you will need to improve significantly to qualify athletically or maybe too expensive without significant financial aid. You should have these dream schools on your list but recognize they might be a stretch.
  • Safety schools: These are the schools you have on your list as your back-up plan. Keep your options open and consider schools that you otherwise might not have before starting your research. While these schools may not be your first choice, they’re still a good fit.

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What division level is right for you?

It’s important to include a mix of Division 2, Division 3 and NAIA schools on your college lists. The majority of scholarship athletes compete outside of Division 1. In fact, while 56% of Division 1 athletes receive some form of aid, 61% of Division 2 and 82% of Division 3 college athletes receive aid or need-based scholarships. The right division level for you comes down to what you are looking for in college.

  • NCAA Division 1: These programs are highly competitive, and being an athlete is considered a full-time job. There are more than 350 D1 schools and they typically offer partial or full scholarships, but less than 2% of high school athletes play at this level.
  • NCAA Division 2: These programs tend to be a mix of private and public schools that are smaller to mid-sized. There are more than 300 D2 programs, all of which offer athletic scholarships. Athletes typically find a balance among their academics, athletics and social life at these institutions.
  • NCAA Division 3: There are more than 440 D3 schools and 81% of them are private. In general, they tend to be smaller schools. D3 offers athletes more free time so they can have a well-rounded college experience.
  • NAIA: The average NAIA school has 2,000 students and there are more than 250 programs nationwide. Like Division 3, these schools are smaller.
  • Junior college: Junior colleges offer a two-year associate degree, and most can offer scholarships. For many athletes, junior college is an opportunity to improve and grow, while discovering different subjects they’d like to major in.

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Best colleges by sport and division level

Search the NCSA Power Rankings below to find the best colleges for each sport and division level:

Best college sports programs

View the top 100 college athletic programs for student-athletes for all sports in all divisions or view the top 100 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA colleges below:

Best NCAA Division 1 colleges

Best NCAA Division 2 colleges

Best NCAA Division 3 colleges

Best NAIA colleges

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Best baseball colleges

View the top 100 colleges for baseball overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA baseball colleges below:

Best Division 1 Baseball Colleges

Best Division 2 Baseball Colleges

Best Division 3 Baseball Colleges

Best NAIA Baseball Colleges

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Best men’s basketball colleges

View the top 100 colleges for men’s basketball overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA men’s basketball colleges below:

Best Division 1 Men’s Basketball Colleges

Best Division 2 Men’s Basketball Colleges

Best Division 3 Men’s Basketball Colleges

Best NAIA Men’s Basketball Colleges

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Best women’s basketball colleges

View the top 100 colleges for women’s basketball overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA women’s basketball colleges below:

Best Division 1 Women’s Basketball Colleges

Best Division 2 Women’s Basketball Colleges

Best Division 3 Women’s Basketball Colleges

Best NAIA Women’s Basketball Colleges

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Best field hockey colleges

View the top 100 colleges for field hockey overall or view the top D1, D2, and D3 field hockey colleges below:

Best Division 1 Field Hockey Colleges

Best Division 2 Field Hockey Colleges

Best Division 3 Field Hockey Colleges

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Best football colleges

View the top 100 colleges for football overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA football colleges below:

Best Division 1 Football Colleges

Best Division 2 Football Colleges

Best Division 3 Football Colleges

Best NAIA Football Colleges

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Best men’s golf colleges

View the top 100 colleges for men’s golf overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA men’s golf colleges below:

Best Division 1 Men’s Golf Colleges

Best Division 2 Men’s Golf Colleges

Best Division 3 Men’s Golf Colleges

Best NAIA Men’s Golf Colleges

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Best women’s golf colleges

View the top 100 colleges for women’s golf overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA women’s golf colleges below:

Best Division 1 Women’s Golf Colleges

Best Division 2 Women’s Golf Colleges

Best Division 3 Women’s Golf Colleges

Best NAIA Women’s Golf Colleges

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Best men’s hockey colleges

View the top 100 colleges for men’s hockey overall or view the top 50 D1 and D3 men’s ice hockey colleges below:

Best Division 1 Men’s Hockey Colleges

Best Division 3 Men’s Hockey Colleges

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Best women’s hockey colleges

View the top 50 colleges for women’s hockey overall or view the top D1 and D3 women’s ice hockey colleges below:

Best Division 1 Women’s Hockey Colleges

Best Division 3 Women’s Hockey Colleges

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Best men’s lacrosse colleges

View the top 100 colleges for men’s lacrosse overall or view the top D1, D2, D3, and NAIA men’s lacrosse colleges below:

Best Division 1 Men’s Lacrosse Colleges

Best Division 2 Men’s Lacrosse Colleges

Best Division 3 Men’s Lacrosse Colleges

Best NAIA Men’s Lacrosse Colleges

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Best women’s lacrosse colleges

View the top 100 colleges for women’s lacrosse overall or view the top D1, D2, D3, and NAIA women’s lacrosse colleges below:

Best Division 1 Women’s Lacrosse Colleges

Best Division 2 Women’s Lacrosse Colleges

Best Division 3 Women’s Lacrosse Colleges

Best NAIA Women’s Lacrosse Colleges

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Best men’s rowing colleges

View the top 50 colleges for men’s rowing overall.

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Best women’s rowing colleges

View the top 100 colleges for women’s rowing overall.

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Best men’s soccer colleges

View the top 100 colleges for men’s soccer overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA men’s soccer colleges below:

Best Division 1 Men’s Soccer Colleges

Best Division 2 Men’s Soccer Colleges

Best Division 3 Men’s Soccer Colleges

Best NAIA Men’s Soccer Colleges

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Best women’s soccer colleges

View the top 100 colleges for women’s soccer overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA women’s soccer colleges below:

Best Division 1 Women’s Soccer Colleges

Best Division 2 Women’s Soccer Colleges

Best Division 3 Women’s Soccer Colleges

Best NAIA Women’s Soccer Colleges

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Best softball colleges

View the top 100 colleges for softball overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA softball colleges below:

Best Division 1 Softball Colleges

Best Division 2 Softball Colleges

Best Division 3 Softball Colleges

Best NAIA Softball Colleges

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Best men’s swimming colleges

View the top 100 colleges for men’s swimming overall or view the top D1, D2, D3, and NAIA men’s swimming colleges below:

Best Division 1 Men’s Swimming Colleges

Best Division 2 Men’s Swimming Colleges

Best Division 3 Men’s Swimming Colleges

Best NAIA Men’s Swimming Colleges

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Best women’s swimming colleges

View the top 100 colleges for women’s swimming overall or view the top D1, D2, D3, and NAIA women’s swimming colleges below:

Best Division 1 Women’s Swimming Colleges

Best Division 2 Women’s Swimming Colleges

Best Division 3 Women’s Swimming Colleges

Best NAIA Women’s Swimming Colleges

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Best men’s tennis colleges

View the top 100 colleges for men’s tennis overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA men’s tennis colleges below:

Best Division 1 Men’s Tennis Colleges

Best Division 2 Men’s Tennis Colleges

Best Division 3 Men’s Tennis Colleges

Best NAIA Men’s Tennis Colleges

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Best women’s tennis colleges

View the top 100 colleges for women’s tennis overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA women’s tennis colleges below:

Best Division 1 Women’s Tennis Colleges

Best Division 2 Women’s Tennis Colleges

Best Division 3 Women’s Tennis Colleges

Best NAIA Women’s Tennis Colleges

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Best men’s track and field colleges

View the top 100 colleges for men’s track and field overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA men’s track and field colleges below:

Best Division 1 Men’s Track and Field Colleges

Best Division 2 Men’s Track and Field Colleges

Best Division 3 Men’s Track and Field Colleges

Best NAIA Men’s Track and Field Colleges

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Best women’s track and field colleges

View the top 100 colleges for women’s track and field overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA women’s track and field colleges below:

Best Division 1 Women’s Track and Field Colleges

Best Division 2 Women’s Track and Field Colleges

Best Division 3 Women’s Track and Field Colleges

Best NAIA Women’s Track and Field Colleges

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Best women’s volleyball colleges

View the top 100 colleges for women’s volleyball overall or view the top 50 D1, D2, D3, and NAIA women’s volleyball colleges below:

Best Division 1 Women’s Volleyball Colleges

Best Division 2 Women’s Volleyball Colleges

Best Division 3 Women’s Volleyball Colleges

Best NAIA Women’s Volleyball Colleges

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Best women’s beach volleyball colleges

View the top 50 colleges for women’s beach volleyball overall.

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Best men’s volleyball colleges

View the top 100 colleges for men’s volleyball overall.

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Best men’s water polo colleges

View the top 45 colleges for men’s water polo overall.

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Best women’s water polo colleges

View the top 50 colleges for women’s water polo overall.

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Best women’s wrestling colleges

View the top 50 colleges for women’s wrestling overall.

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Best small colleges

For student-athletes, finding the best college fit is dependent on a variety of factors, including academic standards, athletic standards, financial costs, and social environment. While big Division 1 universities usually get a lot of attention in a college search, many student-athletes may find that they are more likely to thrive at a small college.

According to the methodology established by Niche for its 2021 Best Small Colleges in America rankings, a small college can be defined as a four-year college with fewer than 4,000 students attending. These colleges can offer student-athletes a great education with smaller class sizes, as well as a campus environment that feels more personal and approachable. This can make it easier for some student-athletes to make friends and get personal attention in the classroom.

Researching the best small colleges in America is a wise investment of time and effort in the college search process. Some of the best small colleges include:

  1. California Institute of Technology
  2. Pomona College
  3. Bowdoin College
  4. Harvey Mudd College
  5. Carleton College
  6. Williams College
  7. Haverford College
  8. Colby College
  9. Washington & Lee University
  10. Amherst College

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What college can I get into with a 4.0 GPA?

College Location GPA
Stanford University Stanford, CA 3.96
Princeton University Princeton, NJ 3.9
University of Pennsylvania Philadelphia, PA 3.9
Boston College Boston, MA 3.96
Boston University Boston, MA 3.71
California Polytechnic State University, San Luis Obispo San Luis Obispo, CA 4.0
University of Georgia Athens, GA 4.0
University of California, Irvine Irvine, CA 4.0
University of Massachusetts, Amherst Amherst, MA 3.9
University of California, Davis Davis, CA 4.0

For many high school students, a 4.0 grade point average is the gold standard and a symbol of years of hard work and dedication. While 4.0 is an excellent GPA, the truth is that many high schools operate on a weighted scale that considers difficulty and usually goes up to 5.0. For this reason, the top colleges in the country tend to have an average admissions GPA that is higher than 4.0. For example, according to PrepScholar, top colleges like the California Institute of Technology and Harvard University have average admission GPAs of 4.19 and 4.18, respectively.

GPA is only one aspect of a college application; other factors are also considered, including standardized test scores and extracurricular activities. Applicants should always set aside a few reach schools that may be difficult to get accepted to but are still a possibility. With that said, above we have compiled a shortlist of NCSA’s best colleges for student-athletes where students have a good chance of getting accepted to with a 4.0 GPA. 

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NCSA college search tools

One of the most difficult aspects of finding the right college is simply knowing where to look. There are thousands of viable schools in the country across the Division 1, Division 2, Division 3, NAIA, and junior college levels where student-athletes can potentially find a great fit for their college experience. That’s why NCSA provides student-athletes and families with powerful college search tools that simplify this complicated process. 

Over 90% of college programs have had an NCSA athlete on their roster and the impressive range of our athlete placement is partly due to our College Search features. College Search allows users to easily filter through thousands of schools based on specific athletic, academic and college fit criteria. Additionally, NCSA Match equips users with the most sophisticated college-matching algorithm in the industry, able to suggest colleges that offer athletic scholarships while also focusing colleges to match preferences, skill level, academics and recruiting evaluation results. Users can dig even deeper into their search results with Match Analysis, which provides a visual snapshot of how they fit athletically and academically at a specific college. Get started for free.

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For more information on the NCSA Power Rankings, visit our press kit or email us.

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