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The Difference in the College Division Levels

Difference in college division levels.

According to the NCAA, there are 350 Division 1 schools, 310 Division 2 schools, and 438 Division 3 schools. To give you a better idea of size and how these divisions compare, about 176,000 student athletes compete at the Division 1 level. A little more than 118,000 student-athletes compete in Division 2 and Division 3 has just under 188,000 student athletes on its various rosters. And that’s just the NCAA divisions. 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 D1 and D2 athletes must meet certain eligibility requirements set by the NCAA. Division 3 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 D1 and D2 level, only about 57 percent of DI athletes receive some type of athletics aid and D2 athletes fare just a little better at 60 percent that get athletics aid.

Here are a few things to consider when comparing NCAA division levels:


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The surprising DIII difference

While D3 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 D3 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 D1 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 2 and 3.

Many high school athletes who have the physical size, athleticism, and grades to compete at the D1 level opt to go to a D2 or D3 school for a variety of reasons. It may be that 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.  What colleges offer full ride scholarships?

View NCSA’s list of the Best Colleges for student athletes.

As your athlete begins to look at their college options, it’s important to understand the different college experiences for athletes in D1, D2 and D3 programs. Here’s a quick breakdown of what to expect:

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Division I: Your sport, your life

Breakdown of NCAA Division 1 Schools and Stats

For NCAA Division 1 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 D1 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 D1 experience for anything.

View NCSA’s list of the Best NCAA Division 1 Colleges for student-athletes.

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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, Yale and Dartmouth rank among the top 20 NCAA Division 1 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 D1 how you can manage your workload better with these Nine Time Management Tips.

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Division II: A more balanced approach 

Breakdown of NCAA Division 2 Schools and Stats

Student-athletes who want a high level of competition but a more balanced approach to sports and academics are giving serious consideration to D2 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 D1 athlete.

View NCSA’s list of the Best NCAA Division 2 Colleges for student-athletes.

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Division III: A well-rounded college experience

Breakdown of NCAA Division 3 Schools and Stats

D3 programs offer a more well-rounded college experience where academics take more of the lead. Just like their D1 and D2 counterparts, D3 athletes also must learn to manage playing their sport while pursuing their education. The time commitment, however, for D3 athletes is not nearly as intense which gives them more opportunity to explore life outside of the classroom and outside of their sport. D3 athletes often feel they are more a part of the general college community where D1 and D2 athletes feel a little more separated from the rest of the college or university.

View NCSA’s list of the Best NCAA Division 3 Colleges for student-athletes.

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Why an NAIA school might be your best bet

Breakdown of NAIA Schools and Stats

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 D3 schools when it comes to life/sport balance and level of competitiveness. 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 D2 team. Learn more about the NAIA and how it differs from the NCAA below:


Read more NAIA Schools: What You Need to Know

View NCSA’s list of the Best NAIA Colleges for student-athletes.

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Don’t ignore junior colleges

Between the three NCAA divisions and NAIA schools, it’s easy for recruits to overlook junior college athletics as an option. However, according to the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) about 60,000 student-athletes participate in 28 different sports at 500+ schools nationwide–every year. 

Many recruits pass on considering a junior college because there are many common misconceptions about what junior colleges can offer student-athletes. However, today’s junior colleges have a lot to offer, especially 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. Here are four reasons why junior colleges can be a great option for student-athletes:


Looking for more reasons to consider attending a junior college or pursuing junior college athletics? Here are a few more advantages of a junior college that other division levels may not have:

While nearly everyone starts out thinking D1 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.

Insider tip: View NCSA’s list of top college athletic programs across all division levels.

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How to gauge your talent to find your best division

One of the first steps in the recruiting process is to accurately gauge your talent level and get an understanding of the divisions you might be suited for athletically. However, each day, I talk to athletes who don’t have a good grasp on what’s realistic for them.

And I get it! It’s tough to predict what level you’ll be at in three or even two years. The good news: There are plenty of ways to figure out where you stand athletically. The bad news: It’s still going to require that you honestly evaluate yourself. Let’s check out some of the best ways to get a better understanding of your true athletic talent.

Watch college games at every division level

Watch college athletes closely and compare your current skill level to the competition. If you can, visit local schools and universities and see it live. And be realistic! If you need to improve drastically in order to get some playing time on a team, it might make sense to check out a game at a different division level and see how you compare.

Watch college athletes closely and compare your current skill level to the competition. If you can, visit local schools and universities and see it live. And be realistic! If you need to improve drastically in order to get some playing time on a team, it might make sense to check out a game at a different division level and see how you compare.

The head baseball coach at Webster University explained during a panel discussion, “Go watch a Division 1, a Division 2, a Division 3 or an NAIA game.” He added, “One of the best things I did—I played at Quincy University—I went and watched them play. I sat in the stands and said, ‘You know what, I can play here; I can do this.’ I also went and saw Illinois State play the University of Northern Iowa when I was in high school, and I thought, ‘Well, maybe not.’ Not that I wasn’t as good, but I wasn’t going to play… And I knew I wanted to play every day.”

When you’re watching a game, ask yourself these questions to help you figure out if this is the right level for you:

Review rosters of schools at different division levels

There’s a lot of helpful information you can get from a college sport’s roster. To find it, go to the school’s website and find the roster of current team members. Typically, you can find it by searching for the athletic program and then your specific sport. Each athlete will most likely have a short bio that talks about their high school and collegiate accomplishments. Here are a few key things to look for:

Keep an open mind as you’re looking through schools’ rosters. If you never imagined yourself competing at a D3 school—but those are the athletes who most resemble you—it’s worth it to continue investigating what that division has to offer. Hint: There are countless benefits to attending a D3 school.

Get evaluated by a third party

In many cases, it’s almost impossible to objectively evaluate yourself, especially on something as personal as your athletic talent. That’s where third parties come into play. Experts can either evaluate you in person or via your highlight film. If you use film, make sure it’s up to date.

You can ask your current high school and/or club coach to evaluate your talent level. Recruiting experts, like Next College Student Athlete, provide evaluations for athletes in 31 different sports. Another avenue to investigate are evaluation camps. They are, as the name indicates, camps for college hopefuls in which coaches help athletes gauge their talent and give them suggestions on how to improve.

When getting a third-party evaluation, here are a few questions to ask the evaluator:

Compete against elite athletes

Some high schools and clubs compete against tough teams who notoriously turn out college athletes. For athletes who already compete against the elite, every game is an opportunity to level set and see how they compare to other athletes in their recruiting class. Some athletes, however, play for smaller teams and don’t necessarily get a chance to compete against other college-bound athletes. In this case, it’s crucial to find camps, showcases, summer leagues or club teams that provide an opportunity to play against the best high school athletes.

Getting a better understanding of your talent is a great place to start when figuring out your best school. However, don’t forget that a great match is about where you fit athletically, academically and socially. You may have the talent to compete at the Division I level, but that doesn’t mean that will be the best fit for you academically and socially. Keep all three factors in mind as you build your target list of schools, visit campuses and do your research.

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