While the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) does not set an official age limit for student-athletes to play college sports, their strict eligibility requirements can limit older students’ ability to play.
Not every high school student attends college immediately after graduation, which means age may be a factor to consider when thinking about playing college sports.
Let’s look at how NCAA eligibility requirements can affect age limits in college sports.
Division 1 (D1) and Division 2 (D2) colleges require high school student-athletes to enroll in college no later than 12 months post-graduation. Upon acceptance, these students have five years to compete in four full years of college sports, as they can opt to redshirt (sit out of competitive gameplay for a season) for one of their four eligible years.
Note: The D1 and D2 eligibility grace periods for ice hockey players and tennis players differ:
Men’s and Women’s Tennis
D1: 6 months
D2: 12 months
Men’s Ice Hockey
D1: 21st birthday
D2: 3 years
All Other Sports
D1 & D2: 12 months
Ice hockey players have until their 21st birthday to enroll in a D1 school and a grace period of three years post-graduation to enroll in a D2 school. Tennis players have a grace period of six months post-graduation to enroll in a D1 school and 12 months to enroll in a D2 school.
Division 3 (D3) schools have a semester-based eligibility clock rather than strict grace periods or a five-year eligibility window. D3 student-athletes have 10 semesters to compete in gameplay, and they can drop out of school and return to finish their 10 semesters at any time. This means there are no eligibility-related restrictions that limit the age cap for D3 student-athletes.
Along with age-limiting eligibility factors, the NCAA requires student-athletes to meet several other eligibility requirements related to amateurism rules and academic performance.
While student-athletes across all three divisions must meet the NCAA’s definition of an amateur athlete, academic requirements vary. D1 and D2 schools typically have stricter core course and GPA requirements than D3 schools.
For D1 athletes, academic requirements are stringent. To be eligible to compete, students enrolling in college during the 2022-23 or 2023-24 school years must:
To be eligible to compete in athletics, D2 athletes must:
The NCAA doesn’t set initial eligibility requirements for D3 athletes. It’s up to the individual institutions to set those.
Athletes who do not meet the academic requirements may still be able to compete in college if they receive a waiver from the NCAA. View our full breakdown of NCAA eligibility requirements for more information
Besides NCAA eligibility requirements, athletes must also meet school-specific requirements. These vary depending on the type of school and sport. For example:
Keep this in mind as you decide which schools are the best fit for you.
The NCAA’s five-year rule stipulates that a student-athlete cannot compete in any one D1 college sport for more than four seasons. These four seasons must fall within a period of five calendar years. That said, the NCAA can grant exceptions. These include:
The NCAA may allow student-athletes to study abroad without losing a year of eligibility. Athletes must meet certain academic requirements and get approval from the NCAA to earn this exception.
Athletes who take part in internships can do so without losing a year of eligibility provided they meet certain requirements. This is valuable for athletes who want to gain work experience in their career field.
The NCAA grants exceptions to the five-year rule for students who participate in military service and/or religious missions. Athletes who take this route must complete a certain amount of coursework before they can compete. The specific requirements vary depending on the athlete’s sport.
Athletes who become pregnant and/or have a child during their college career can receive an exception from the NCAA. These athletes can take a leave of absence from competition to take care of their child. The NCAA grants this exception on a case-by-case basis.
NCAA eligibility requirements include a special exception for athletes kept from competing because of circumstances beyond their control. These can include severe injuries or medical conditions, extreme financial hardship, and the effects of natural disasters. The NCAA grants this exception on a case-by-case basis.
The NCAA does not keep age records, so there’s no straightforward answer to this question. However, notable examples of athletes competing in college athletics at advanced ages include:
The NCAA has different rules and regulations for athletes who want to compete in college. These rules can be confusing and overwhelming, but it’s important to understand them.
Age, academic requirements, and graduation grace periods are a few of the things to consider when deciding to play college sports. With so many factors to consider, it is important to do your research.
Check out our recruiting rules page to learn more about the NCAA rules and regulations.