College athletes are often seen as superior, idolized and sometimes superhuman representations of what it takes to compete at the college or university level. While yes, some high-level athletes may resemble The Hulk, Superwoman or at some secluded colleges, Wolverine, the majority of college athletes couldn’t be picked out of a crowd.
The truth is that all of these individuals are no different than most of us with the exception that they are playing college athletics while working toward an area of study or earning a college degree.
When referring to college sports, athletes and parents often ask, “Is there a level for everyone?” We can first respond to that with the statement that it takes a collection of “everyone” to make up all different levels of college athletics. From NCAA Division I, Division II, Division III, NAIA and NJCAA or Junior College, there are many different levels that are based on variations of student athletes both athletically and academically.
We have compiled a few basic aspects of each level to help you understand the differences between NCAA Division I, NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III, NAIA and NJCAA.
NCAA Division I is the level that most of us think about when we think about college athletics or sports. This is typically the level that gets the most publicity and whose competitions are most televised. This is because these education giants boast the largest education, athletic and recruiting budgets out of all of the collegiate levels. They offer the most generous scholarships and their structure is based on high academic standards paired with high-level athletic performance. This is the most difficult to compete in both athletically and academically.
This level has been found to be an excellent fit for many student-athletes. NCAA Division II boasts a high level of athletic competition paired with the emphasis on excelling in the classroom. Division II features arguably the best balance between academics and athletics out of all other levels. The majority of Division II schools are similarly structured to those in Division I, just scaled down to a smaller level. The majority of people would not be able to tell the difference between many Division I and Division II teams from an athletics and skills perspective.
Many of you may be surprised to learn that NCAA Division III is the largest NCAA Division both in number of schools as well as student athletes. NCAA Division III has a primary focus on academics with athletics structured around class and instruction time. They minimize conflict between athletics and academics and maintain a strong emphasis on progressing toward earning a college degree. NCAA Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships, although more than 80% of student athletes receive financial aid or have been able to secure a merit-based scholarship based on academics, accomplishment, etc.
NAIA has been found as a good fit for many American and international student-athletes based on their ideology focused around a high level of athletics, strong emphasis on academics and their experience historically in working with international student-athletes. Athletically, most NAIA schools are comparable to many NCAA Division II schools. NAIA athletics are not governed by the NCAA, therefore student-athletes can look to improve through extended practice, training and competition times that aren’t as strictly regulated as compared to NCAA institutions.
The NJCAA has been a wonderful addition and pathway for many student-athletes who may need to further develop both athletically and academically. It is a resource that allows student-athletes who may not have achieved as highly as they would have liked academically to study at a level that is comfortable and accommodates various levels of student athletes. Their athletic programs are operated in conjunction with a strong focus on academics. NJCAA schools are 2-year schools and qualified student-athletes are eligible to apply to and enroll in any of the other 4-year institutions for their final 2 years of eligibility.
You may not be as shocked now to know that approximately 82% of all collegiate athletic opportunities fall OUTSIDE of Division I. As you can see, there are many different options based on academic ability, athletic ability, balance between the two and primary focus on one or the other.
Now that you are aware of the different levels of schools, you can now better understand that there are levels for the majority of student athletes wishing to compete at a higher level while working toward an academic degree. Is there a level for everyone? Perhaps not everyone, as we all know there are exceptions to every rule and certain circumstances and situations warrant certain outcomes. But maybe now you know that you don’t have to be a national team player or academic genius to find a comfortable home to study and play college athletics. It’s all about the right fit for both the athlete and the school, so keep all of those possible options and levels in mind if you ever start to think that there isn’t a level for you!