Many young athletes grow up with aspirations of playing a sport in college. Although some lose interest in athletics over time, the dream persists for others who have the talent and desire to keep playing after high school.
And for many, that dream becomes reality. There are nearly 1,100 schools in the National Collegiate Athletic Association, more commonly known as the NCAA, meaning that most prospective college athletes have options to choose from.
The NCAA separates these schools into three divisions based on factors like size, competition capability and athletic program funding. Division I schools have the largest median undergraduate enrollment – 8,960 – with 1 in 23 students being an athlete. At Division II schools, the median average enrollment is 2,428 and 1 in 10 students is an athlete. At Division III colleges, the median undergraduate enrollment is 1,740 and 1 in 6 students is an athlete.
Generally, Division I offers the highest level of competition, and Division III the lowest. Prospective student-athletes who are capable of playing at the Division I or Division II level often consider competition level when deciding which division would be their best fit.
Each division is unique in terms of rules and how its member schools operate. If you aspire to play a competitive sport at an NCAA college or university, here are three additional factors to weigh when comparing schools in the three divisions:
- Time commitment.
- Name, image and likeness compensation.
Division I and II schools can offer full or partial athletic scholarships. Division III schools cannot offer student-athletes financial benefits not generally available to other students, based on NCAA rules.
Two types of athletic scholarships are available at the Division I level. In “headcount” sports – currently Football Bowl Subdivision football, men’s basketball, women’s basketball, tennis, gymnastics and women’s volleyball – programs can offer only an explicit number of athletic scholarships, all of which cover the full cost of attendance.
In “equivalency scholarship” sports such as baseball and soccer, programs are also granted a set number of scholarships but have the freedom to divide them up into partial offers. Teams usually take advantage of this freedom in order to have more athletes on scholarship.
Division I schools are able to give out more total athletic scholarship money than Division II schools.
Stonehill College, a private school in Massachusetts, recently announced that it will be moving from Division II to Division I in all sports starting in the 2022-2023 academic year. According to Chris Kraus, head coach of the men’s basketball team at Stonehill, this means the Skyhawks will be able to roster more scholarship players.
“We were only allowed to give 10 full scholarships in Division II,” Kraus says. “Jumping to the Division I level, we’ll have 13 full scholarships.”
Division II sports overwhelmingly follow the equivalence, or partial, scholarship model. These teams may offer partial athletic scholarships to prospective athletes, which can be combined with other kinds of scholarships like academic merit money and federal financial aid. Student-athletes recruited by both Division I and Division II programs may find that Division II schools are willing to give them larger athletic scholarships because their talent may be of greater value at the lower competition level.
“Most of the people on my team have athletic scholarships,” says Mackenzie Jones, a midfielder on the women’s soccer team at Grand Valley State University in Michigan, a Division II school. “I don’t know about anyone else, but I know that personally, I combine athletic and academic scholarships.”
Because they heavily emphasize providing well-rounded college experiences, Division III programs are not eligible to grant athletic scholarships. Division III schools are, however, often most generous in offering other kinds of scholarships to athletes, such as merit or need-based. According to the NCAA, 75% of Division III athletes receive non-athletic aid.
Rylee Jarvis, who plays defense on the women’s lacrosse team at Division III’s Capital University in Ohio, considered Division II and Division III programs when she decided that she wanted to continue her athletic career in college.
“Most of the largest academic scholarships I got came from the Division III schools I looked at,” Jarvis says.
College sports have a major time commitment in any division. For student-athletes’ overall best interest, NCAA rules limit how much time athletes can be required to dedicate to their sport at each level.
Per the NCAA’s “20/8 hour rule,” Division I student-athletes cannot be required to participate in more than 20 hours of mandatory athletic-related activities per week while in season, or in more than eight hours of mandatory team events per week while out of season. The NCAA makes an exception for football, allowing teams 15 “spring ball” on-field practices per year.
However, in reality, student-athletes at this level – or any level, for that matter – can expect to spend additional hours on “voluntary” team commitments. While NCAA bylaws stipulate that coaches cannot attend such events, other team members may expect their teammates to do so.
“Quote-unquote voluntary hours, organized by captains or maybe seniors, won’t be supervised by a coach, but they will be somewhat monitored in terms of participation,” says Dan Doyle, a recruiting coach manager for Next College Student Athlete, a Chicago-based consultancy that connects middle and high school athletes with college coaches. “They’re voluntary, but kind of highly recommended.”
At the Division II level, student-athletes can expect a slightly less demanding schedule than their Division I counterparts. In the offseason, Division II coaches of sports other than football can require athletes to participate in mandatory athletic activities for up to eight hours per week, with two rest days. But the specific scheduling demands can vary greatly from school to school.
While coaches can provide valuable insight, prospective student-athletes should speak to current athletes to get a better sense of a program’s commitment expectations, advises Doyle.
“The current players are always going to give you the most honest answers,” Doyle says.
Will Rywolt, who played two seasons in Division II for the Stonehill men’s basketball program, expects the school’s reclassification to Division I to result in a significant increase in expected time commitment for athletes, particularly in offseasons.
“Our coach says that next summer (2023), we will definitely have a summer session. That’s going to be a huge time commitment,” Rywolt says.
Division III athletes usually have the most time for studying, extracurriculars, jobs and other interests. Just like at the Division I and II levels, Division III programs are limited to 20 hours of mandatory commitments per week. In the offseason, all workouts and practices for these programs are technically voluntary but like in the other divisions, athletes at some schools can expect team leaders to strongly encourage participation.
Finding time for social life commitments can be challenging, particularly at the Division I and II levels, but it’s possible.
“You have to be intentional about it, but as long as you are, there’s definitely time to see your friends,” says Jones, the soccer midfielder at Grand Valley State University.
Name, Image and Likeness Compensation
On June 21, 2021, the United States Supreme Court unanimously ruled that the NCAA violated antitrust laws in preventing its athletes from making money on endorsements, ending a longstanding precedent. Since the NCAA’s current NIL policy went into effect on July 1, 2021, athletes in any division have been able to profit off of their names, images and likenesses as long as they comply with their state, college and conference NIL policies.
Some top competitors at the Division I level in football and men’s basketball have since reportedly pulled seven-figure deals through big-time sponsorships and endorsements. Although the vast majority of student-athletes in any division are unlikely to strike such luck, they can earn smaller amounts.
Jones previously had a deal with Liquid IV, an electrolyte replacement brand, and received products in exchange for monthly sponsorship posts on Instagram. Some of her teammates have similar deals with protein bar companies.
Multitalented student-athletes can also use their NIL rights to benefit from other skills. RaSun Kazadi, a former football player at Southern Methodist University in Texas, started selling his paintings after the NCAA changed its NIL policy.
And because Division I athletes tend to get the biggest deals, the change at Stonehill could benefit athletes financially.
“There’s athletes now at our school that have small NIL deals with local businesses, but I wouldn’t be surprised if some get bigger ones now, and as we continue to grow,” says Rywolt.
Finding Your Fit
Students looking to continue their athletic careers in college should consider their sport one element of a larger equation in determining their best college fit.
“In trying to find your best fit, there’s lots to consider,” Doyle says. “All three divisions have really unique benefits.”
Playing at a lower level might be the best option for some, like Jarvis, who hopes to find a balance between athletics and other pursuits.
“I still wanted to play lacrosse, but I wanted to be able to have a lot of time to focus on my schoolwork,” she says.
Students should note that athletic scholarship opportunities also exist in the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics and the National Junior College Athletic Association. NAIA schools offer four-year degrees and competition that is comparable to the NCAA’s Divisions II or III. NJCAA schools give athletes the chance to earn college credit and get recruited by coaches from four-year institutions for two more years.
“If you’re not being recruited at the level you’d like,” Doyle says, “or you feel like another year or two of athletic and academic development could really help you, junior college is a great route to go.”