A Guide For High School Students on the Differences Between Division I, II, and III Athletics

In order for High School student-athletes and their families to navigate the complicated and ever-changing collegiate recruitment process, there is a lot of valuable information that is crucial to understand. We will be highlighting the sport of Women’s Golf as an example, but also including information that is valuable for athletes in any sport. Being prepared and knowledgeable as you enter the recruitment world will help you narrow your search, select the best program for your or your child’s individual needs and goals, and could even earn them a scholarship to a great university! 

There are a variety of classes of universities, especially when it comes to athletics. The organization we are all most familiar with, the NCAA, or the National Collegiate Athletics Association, is broken down into three divisions, aptly designated DI, DII, and DIII. But, it’s important to remember there are also NAIA institutions as well as a network of community colleges whose athletics compete under the NJCAA umbrella.

For our purposes, we will breaking down the differences among those three main NCAA divisions by answering some questions you likely have as well as including some thoughtful questions to ask a college coach within each subject area so that you have the tools to impress coaches regardless of their division. 

What are the Differences in Scholarship Opportunities?

This question is a direct reflection on the size of the school and their budget, but also what the NCAA rules allow per each sport. Currently, there are over 350 Division I Universities, but it’s important to remember not every one of them sponsors every sport. Additionally, each sport has a maximum number of scholarships they can award across the entire team roster. Women’s Golf can offer up to 6 full scholarships per team but the key is not all the programs are fully-funded, so they might not have all 6 scholarships to give. The scholarships can be given out as whole 100% scholarships, or as partial scholarships, but this depends on whether the sport you compete in is considered a “headcount” or an “equivalency” sport. The easiest way to remember the difference is this: if you earn a scholarship in a headcount sport, it’s a full scholarship; you’re either on or off scholarship. Contrastingly, in equivalency sports, you can be on a scholarship ranging anywhere from 0-100%, also meaning it’s possible that everyone on the team is on some type of scholarship. 

Most Universities, but not all, allow any academically-earned aid to be paired with an athletic scholarship as well. Some private institutions are considered “non-stackable,” meaning you must choose to accept either academic or athletic aid, but not both.

There are 154 Division II Universities that have Women’s Golf programs. The NCAA allotment for Women’s Golf at the DII level is 5.4 scholarships per team. Because golf is an equivalency sport, coaches are allowed to give “full-ride” scholarships or to divide them up amongst the team however they see fit to accommodate their recruitment goals. 

Division III is an exception to all of this talk about scholarships. They are not allowed to give out any athletic aid to athletes on their teams. Student-athletes at this level must rely on accepting academic aid. 

Great scholarship questions to ask a college coach: 

  1. Do you have a fully-funded program?
  2. How many scholarship dollars do you have available for my graduation class?
  3. What are the main things you are looking for when deciding to offer a scholarship?
  4. Is there any opportunity to earn a scholarship during my collegiate career even if I’m not initially offered one?

What are the Differences in Competition? 

This is the most unpredictable aspect when trying to generalize the difference amongst divisions. It’s crucial to understand there are very good teams at each of the DI, DII and DIII levels. Being a DII institution competing in a field against all DI teams does not at all mean that DII team can’t come on top, they can, and they often to. Of course, resources, facilities, school size, scholarships, etc. all contribute to a higher percentage of competitive schools being classified as DI. 

Fittingly, Division I has the toughest standards, best players, and highest expectations by coaches and athletic directors. Power 5 programs (ones that are in the 5 toughest and highest earning conferences – the Big 10, Big 12, SEC, ACC, and PAC-12), typically are the most competitive year-in and year-out, and all are fully-funded. 

Mid-major Division I schools can be very competitive and highly ranked as well, but not all are fully-funded or have the quality of facilities a Power 5 University can afford. 

Division II programs can have elite athletes that would be able to compete at the DI level, but overall the competitive parity drops off sooner. Where the top 50 DI programs can all compete for a National Championship, likely only equates to the top 15-20 of DII prgrams capable of the same level of performance. Division III programs not being able to give out athletic aid impacts the level of competition significantly, but the top programs will still often be competitive with DII teams. 

Every sport has a forum for posting rankings of teams and players for the current season to give you an idea of what the top schools are and what kind of stats their players are putting up. In golf, sites like GolfWeek or GolfStat will give you an idea of the top teams’ scoring capabilities. 

Great competition questions to ask a college coach: 

  1. What kind of scores are you looking for from a freshman to make an immediate impact on your program?
  2. Your current team position in your conference is… what is your 3 year goal for your conference standings?
  3. What are your goals in national competition, and what are the steps the program will take to achieve these?

What are the Differences in Budget?

Budget is a primary reason why Universities are classified DI, DII or DIII. DI programs have the largest budgets, with Power 5 Conference schools having much larger operating budgets than mid-major DIs, on average. The discrepancy can be jarring. For example, in Women’s Golf, some DI budgets can accommodate the use of private planes for team travel while other DI Universities are not yet fully-funded on the scholarship side. 

Do your research on a team – their website and social media accounts will give you great insight into what kind of facilities the team uses and the kinds of trips the team goes on; and that will give you a decent idea of the budget they work with. Budget is typically determined, in large part, by the university’s athletic success in revenue-generating sport like basketball and football. If those teams on campus are strong, that is usually an indicator that the University budget will also be strong. 

Private donors and alumni can also donate and designate their gifts towards specific teams, helping the budget. Usually, these gifts are also highlighted on social media or the website. The budget affects all areas of operations including the coaching staff’s pay, scheduling, recruiting, uniforms and equipement, and the overall student-athlete experience. 

Great budget questions to ask a college coach: 

  1. Do you host a fundraiser each year?
  2. How involved are the alumni of your program?
  3. Do you have a booster club or anything that involves current players and parents? 

What are the Differences in Recruiting?

The difference in the timetable of recruitment might be one of the biggest overall differences between DI, DII and DIII schools. Recruiting is what most DI Head and Assistant Coaches spend a good percentage of their time and budget on. They are very aware of athletes, both in their immediate area as well as Internationally, as young as 12 years old. 

Coaches typically divide up their recruiting strategies by high school graduation class, and, if it applies, playing position. At high-level DI programs, coaches are typically forecasting out a few years further than DII and DIII in going out and scouting younger athletes as they compete. Connections with athletes’ high school and club coaches is also a big part of the recruitment process. 

With more limited budgets, DII and DIII Coaches usually attend events in their area that they can drive back and forth to and have relationships with different recruiting companies that can help them add overseas athletes via email and zoom, often without ever meeting the recruits in person. 

All levels of coaches are looking at where you rank, and how you’re competing at various levels of events, but also intangibles like how good of a teammate you are, how you treat your parents in the parking lot, and what you do before game/tournament/match/meet time. 

Great recruiting questions to ask a college coach: 

  1. How much do you look at social media when recruiting?
  2. What events will you be recruiting at this summer?
  3. How many spots are you looking for in my graduation class? 

What are the Differences Academically?

In terms of how academically strong an institution is – this is completely individualized to the program of study you plan to enter and what contributes most to your idea of academics being strong. Ivy League schools and many smaller DII and DIII Universities are very strong academically on the whole, but doing a deep dive of individual research is the best way to compare and contrast different institutions in this area.

Top teams in Division I have many athletes that are thinking of playing their sport professionally; that percentage is much lower in DII or DIII, where athletes are often equally, if not more focused on their academic success. 

Student-athlete academic support – the staff, facilities, and programming is another area of academics to look into in your research. Because of the massive budgets of Power 5 schools and many DI universities, academic support and tutoring is widely available to make sure athletes are staying on track academically during team travel, and utilizing their time the best they can when at home.

 Academic advisors can oversee one team or multiple teams, depending on the athletic department and how many advisors they employ. The academic advisor is a key staff member for the student-athlete as they make sure to keep you on track to graduate on time and help you through things like changing your major or dropping a class, all while keeping you eligible with the NCAA academic guidelines! Having a great academic advisor can make a big difference in your success as a student-athlete. 

Great academic questions to ask a college coach: 

  1. How long has your academic advisor worked with your team?
  2. How many teams does your academic advisor have?
  3. What are your team goals academically?
  4. What are the study hall requirements for your team?

Words of Wisdom as You Begin the Process

So how do you know which ‘level’ of athletics you are a good fit for? Start with academics, because you’re a student first and an athlete second. Does a particular university even offer the major you are interested in? Do the values of the school line up with your own? Would you want to attend a place if you were to be injured and couldn’t compete? Doing research to make sure that the actual University is a fit for you is just as important as what you uncover on the athletic front in your research. Sports may be the vehicle for your education, but it’s important to take a holistic approach.

Also, be realistic! Look at your current athletic abilities and assess what your weaknesses are that, if worked on, could benefit a college team – this is the best way to begin the process. Coaches are looking at your attitude, work ethic, dedication, family, grades, friendliness, and competitiveness as well as many other factors… all in addition to what you do and how well you perform on your chosen field of play.

While recruiting, a coach will determine their views on your abilities, skills, and aptitude for improvement during your 4 years in their program. By showing that you understand that coaches expect you to keep working hard, competing, and improving in the time between signing on the dotted line and wearing that school’s uniform, coaches are likely to be very impressed with you! The time between committing and joining the team is just as important, if not more so, than the time you put in to get noticed. 

Demonstrating that you have done research on the university and a specific sport’s program is important. Having a parent or guardian be the only one in communication, asking questions, or emailing on your behalf, is a red flag for any coach. 

Add or look up the social media profiles of current team members and ask yourself, “Would I fit in with them?” Being a social fit and making some friends on the team is an enjoyable element of being on any college team. You will be able to tell more about this if you take a visit (official or unofficial), but you can get an idea via social media of what the team members value and how they spend their time. 

Speaking of social media.. Also make sure that what others see on your profile is a good representation of you. Coaches and staff members will make assumptions based on posts and, for many of them, it’s their first impression of you. Creating a sports account where you post action videos and updated results makes it easy for coaches to find you and keep up with your progress!

Best of luck during this exciting process. While it’s stressful, it’s also exciting to seek out possibilities for where your success in sports can take you beyond where you stand today. The possibilities are endless!