NCAA Division I, II, and III: What's the Difference?

By Logan Bright Modified on May 13, 2022
Tags : Scholarships | Sports | Travel

And which division is the best choice for a student-athlete looking for scholarships?

NCAA Division I, II, and III: What's the Difference?

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So you're a killer athlete, and you're looking for the right opportunity to show your skills on the field (or pitch, or rink, or wherever!). You know the United States has a world-wide reputation for excellence in sport, so you're considering attending a US school — and you find all sorts of jargon: NCAA, Division I, II, and III, NAIA, and more... what does it all mean? And most importantly: what schools will offer a full-ride scholarship for you to join their team? Let's find out!

NCAA divisions

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the biggest association for college and university sports in the United States. If you've ever watched "college sports" on TV, it was probably an NCAA game.

The NCAA is subdivided into three divisions, each with a catchy name:

  • Division I
  • Division II
  • Division III

The divisions roughly correspond to the level of investment and interest a school puts into its athletics department. Division I is the biggest, most well-funded schools, while Division III athletic programs are generally much smaller.

This same idea carries over to athletic scholarships, as well. As a rule of thumb, the most generous scholarship packages come from Division I schools. Division II schools also offer athletic scholarships, but Division III schools do not. If receiving funding as an athlete is important to you, be sure to look for Division I and II schools!

Division I

Division I schools host the most well-funded and highest-performance teams in American college athletics. Those football or basketball games you've seen on TV? Those were almost certainly all Division I schools.

Division I includes the Ivy League institutions, which are unique, as they don't offer athletic scholarships. Pretty much all other Division I schools do.

Division I schools are the only ones who offer full-ride scholarships to top players. If you're a star athlete, you could potentially get all your fees covered, just for playing your sport. Of course, the competition is highest, too!

There are around 350 Division I schools in the United States. The average athletic scholarship in Division I is roughly $18,500 USD.

Division II

Division II schools are the middle-ground, with some well-funded teams offering athletic scholarships to some players. Competition isn't quite so fierce in Division II, but neither are the funding opportunities as high.

Athletic scholarships at the Division II level are likely to be partial, meaning they won't cover all of your fees and tuition. Division II schools typically offer smaller scholarships to a wider range of players, meaning if you're not in the top 1% of your sport, you still might have a chance at getting a partial scholarship.

There are around 300 Division II schools in the United States. The average athletic scholarship in Division II is roughly $7,250 USD.

Division III

In terms of NCAA divisions, Division III schools have the lowest-funded athletic programs, and do not offer athletic sholarships to players. By contrast, most players will receive financial aid of some kind, but it's more likely to be academic than athletic.

Division III schools have the least-grueling practice and travel schedules for athletes, and typically focus less on rivalries, money-making, and fun spectacle, and more on the benefits of friendly competition for the players themselves. Division III football games might draw a crowd of 2,000, not 20,000!

This is the largest division, as well, with nearly 450 Division III schools in the United States. Division III schools don't offer athletic scholarships.

Choosing an NCAA Divison

It's important to be realistic about your abilities. Competition is intense, and you may be more satisfied playing games in Division II than warming the bench in Division I. If you're a superstar, coaches in the higher divisions will come scouting — and if they don't, you may want to start looking at lower division schools.

Realistically, if you're shooting for Division I, you may be scouted in high school. Schools may even make an offer while you're in grade 11 or 12, depending on your skills. You may want to submit game tape to coaches to get their attention.

For athletic scholarships, you generally won't need to apply directly. Coaches and school admins will include these financial incentives when discussing your next steps.

NCAA alternatives: NAIA and NJCAA

Though it's the biggest and most popular, the NCAA isn't the only game in town.

NAIA: National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics

The NAIA, the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, is similar to the NCAA, but it focuses on smaller schools. Still, it's a pretty big program, with about 250 schools on the roster. Plus, NAIA schools offer athletic scholarships to players that are on par with many NCAA Division II schools.

Though the NAIA may not be as prestigious as its bigger cousin, you might find a great school that's eager to have you play for them. The average athletic scholarship for the NAIA is about $8,000 USD.

NJCAA: National Junior College Athletic Association

The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) focuses on the smallest colleges: those which offer two-year degrees. Many of these schools offer athletic scholarships, and though the amounts are lower than other schools in other systems, it's worth remembering that the cost of a two-year degree is a lot lower, too.

If you're looking at a shorter, more technically-focused degree, you may find yourself at home at an NJCAA school. There's over 500 schools in the NJCAA, and with average athletic scholarships of around $2,800, you could take a decent chunk out of your tuition while you're at it.

The United States prides itself on its incredible athletes and world-renowned universities. If you're thinking about studying in the States, and you've got some athletic chops, think about which athletic association might be best, and reach out to schools that interest you. They'll happily answer your questions!

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