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How to Find the Best NCAA Division Level for You

How to find the best NCAA division level for you

"Even if you are on a really great club team with multiple DI players, it can't compare with the level in college when athletes are older, stronger, and more experienced."

If you’re just not sure where to even begin the college search process, you’re not alone.

With some 5,300 colleges and universities across the United States, creating your list of top schools could mean filtering through thousands of different institutions. To help give you some focus, and to better understand your options, we’ve put together some guidelines about what makes each NCAA division level unique.

As a student-athlete, you need to consider which division level is right for you and keep an open mind as you begin your college search. Many athletes will only look at Division I schools, turning down opportunities at a Division II or Division III institution. Oftentimes, these athletes will miss their chance to compete in college because they focused only on highly competitive DI programs.

Instead, athletes need to determine what they want out of their college experience, objectively assess their athletic talent and go from there. Many athletes who have the talent to compete at a Division I school opt to play DIII because they prefer a smaller campus and a balance between athletics, academics and other extracurricular activities. There are pros and cons to every NCAA division level, and it’s up to you to be honest with yourself about what would be your best fit.

NCAA Division I: Welcome to the big time

If you’ve ever watched March Madness or the College World Series, you’re well aware of the high-level of athletic competition at the NCAA Division I level. DI schools have the largest student bodies and athletic budgets. Here are some quick facts about the DI level according to the NCAA:

  • There are 347 DI schools, which account for 32 percent of all NCAA institutions.

  • Approximately 1 in 25 students at DI schools are athletes.

  • About 56 percent of athletes receive athletic-based financial aid.

  • The NCAA Division I level manages the largest athletic budgets.


DI schools are known for their intense athletic schedules. Former DI basketball player at Georgetown University Kristin Heidloff explains that she had the opportunity to face the toughest competition, but there were some surprises along the way. “I don't think anything can actually prepare you for being a Division I athlete. It truly is a full-time job and more when you factor in school, practice, training room, study hall, meetings, film sessions, etc. Also, the level of competition, even in practice, at the DI level is something that you can't replicate in high school. Even if you are on a really great club team with multiple DI players, it can't compare with the level in college when athletes are older, stronger, and more experienced.”

Division II: The best of both worlds

Division II athletes tend to have a better balance between athletics and academics. These schools are usually smaller than DI institutions with more intimate class sizes. Here are some key facts about the DII level:

  • There are 309 DII schools, comprising 28 percent of all NCAA institutions.

  • About 1 in 11 students on campus are athletes.

  • Approximately 60 percent of athletes receive some athletic-based aid.

  • DII has the highest championship access ratio in the NCAA, with about one championship opportunity per every seven athletes.

While DII schools have a high-level of athletic competition, athletes tend to have more time outside of their sport. Because DII athletic departments have less money, on average, than DI schools, athletes do less national traveling, adding more time back into athletes’ schedules. Athletes’ practice schedules don’t take up as much of the year, and there is more time before and after the season to catch up on other extracurricular activities and schoolwork.

If you prefer a smaller campus and a better shot at playing your sport all four years of college, DII might be best for you.

Division III: A well-rounded college experience

Division III schools emphasize the importance of student-athletes having a well-rounded college experience. DIII institutions do not offer athletic-based scholarships; however, most of their athletes do receive some kind of financial aid, whether merit-based, academic-based or both. Here are some top facts about the NCAA Division III level:

  • This is the largest division, with 442 schools, representing 40 percent of all NCAA institutions.

  • Approximately 1 in 6 students are athletes.

  • About 80 percent of athletes receive some kind of financial aid.

  • Division III has the highest athlete graduation rate at 87 percent.

Division III athletes usually have the freedom to explore collegiate life outside of athletics, while still competing against top athletes. Many athletes are under the misconception that the DIII level doesn’t have great athletics, but that’s simply not true. Highly recruited athletes will opt to play at the DIII level because they want smaller class sizes, a more intimate campus and more freedom to experience college life.

Division III schools are a great place for athletes who want to keep competing in their sport, while still trying out other aspects of campus life.

To help you find your best division level, there are two key next steps you can take. First, ask your coach or a trusted recruiting expert to evaluate what level you’re best suited for based on your athletic talent. Then, start visiting college campuses! By experiencing schools in person, you’ll get a better feel for your best fit.

Starting the recruiting process? Not sure where to start? Check out the NCSA College Recruiting Guide to learn how to kick off your recruiting journey the right way.

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