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A Look Behind The Numbers: NCAA Women's Sports

By David Brackman

About 485,000 of the nearly eight million high school athletes in America go on to play sports at more than 1,350 NCAA colleges and universities. Nearly half of them are women.

That’s roughly 6 percent of high school players (or one out of every 16) who advance to the NCAA’s three divisions in more than a dozen sports in each of the men’s and women’s divisions. (Only about one out every 50 get to the top level, Division I.)

The odds of playing in college may seem long, but chances of playing in college vary widely by sport. The NCAA has published a table with the raw data for 13 of the women’s sports it sponsors--we’ll try to make sense of the numbers, which are from the 2018-19 school year and include information from the NCAA and the National Federation of State High School Associations, in this article.

General information

Just as in high school, where nearly half a million girls participate, more NCAA women’s athletes are active in track & field (30,326) than any other sport.

Volleyball, the second most popular high school sport for girls, is the toughest to break into at the college level, as only 3.9 percent (17,780) of all high school players go on to play at an NCAA institution and less than one-third of them play in Division I.

The highest percentage of high school girls moving on to an NCAA college in any sport is in ice hockey, at 26.2 percent. But only 2,531 hockey players participate at the NCAA level, with less than 900 in Division I.

Lacrosse, which ranks ninth in high school popularity and has less than 100,000 players, fields nearly 12,500 NCAA players (12.5 percent of high schoolers), ranking it second behind ice hockey in upward mobility.

As with the men, the only NCAA women’s sport that has a majority of its high school athletes participating at the Division I level is water polo, although water polo ranks last in number of NCAA women’s athletes with 1,217.


The third most popular high school sport for girls, with nearly 400,000 players, had 16,509 (4.1 percent) playing in the NCAA, making it the second-toughest sport to transition from the prep to college level. Only 1.3 percent of all high school players made it onto Division I rosters.

Cross Country

In the sixth-most popular sport for high schoolers, a total of 15,624, or about 7.1 percent, of the 219,345 girls running cross country moved on to the NCAA. About 38 percent of the college harriers compete at the Division I level


Only 5,436 golfers played in the NCAA, about 6.8 percent of 79,821 high school golfers. About 41 percent of all NCAA golfers competed at the Division I level.

Ice Hockey

Of 9,650 high school hockey players, 2,531, or 26.2 percent, moved on to the college level, the highest percentage of any sport, men or women. About one-third of them skate at the Division I level. With few teams and no national championship sponsored in Division II, most of the other two-thirds play at the Division III level.


At 12.5 percent, lacrosse has the second-highest likelihood of a high schooler moving on to college, with 12,452 of 99,750 players earning a college roster spot. About 30 percent of them play in Division I, while half are at Division III schools. Lacrosse also has the highest percentage of high schoolers moving to NCAA Division II at 2.6 percent.


The fourth-most popular high school girls sport saw a total of 28,310 of its 394,105 (7.2 percent) players moving on to the NCAA, ranking the sport fifth in likelihood of a player advancing among the 13 women’s sports listed. About one-third of the players competed at the Division I level.


The fifth-most popular sport for high school girls, with 362,038 participants, had 20,419, or 5.6 percent, move on to the NCAA, making it the third-most popular sport for women behind track & field and lacrosse. Softball was the fourth-hardest sport to make the high school-to-college transition. Just under one-third of all NCAA softball players competed at the Division I level.

Swimming & Diving

Swimming & Diving had 173,088 high school participants and 12,980 (7.5 percent) of them moved on to college, making the sport the fourth-best for the transition. About 44 percent of them participated at the Division I level.


Of 189,436 high school tennis players, 8,596 (4.5 percent) moved on, making the third-toughest sport to move on from high school in, after volleyball and basketball. One-third of NCAA tennis players engaged at the Division I level.

Track & Field

As we mentioned above, track & field has the most athletes participating at both the high school and college levels than any other sport for females. The NCAA says that 30,326 women participated in track & field, or about 6.2 percent of the 488,267 girls who participate at the high school level. About 45 percent of all women’s college track & field athletes participate at the Division I level.


At 3.9 percent, volleyball remains the toughest sport for girls to move on from high school and have an NCAA career, just slightly harder than basketball’s 4.1 percent. Only 17,780 of the 452,808 girls who played high school volleyball advanced to any NCAA level, and less than 5,500 of them played at the top Division I level.

Water Polo

Of the 13 sports listed, water polo ranked 12th in high school popularity with 21,735 girls, ahead of only ice hockey. In terms of NCAA opportunities, water polo ranked last, with only 1,217 participants, or just 5.6 percent of girls moving on to the college ranks. The good news is that nearly 60 percent of the roster spots were on Division I teams.

Note: Information about gymnastics, rowing and other women’s sports was unavailable. NAIA and NJCAA school opportunities were not included in this article. The numbers above also do not factor in players who participate in multiple high school sports or in club sports. Although many athletes combine high school and club sports in some way, some athletes opt out of high school sports entirely and only play club sports. See our article about high school and club sports and their respective representation percentages at the NCAA level.


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