Comparing the NCAA & NAIA

By David Brackman

Prospective college athletes may not realize how many colleges and universities sponsor varsity athletics programs.

Anyone who has even a passing interest in college sports has heard of the NCAA and knows that the University of Alabama plays in one of its elite leagues, the Southeastern Conference, or SEC. Same with Ohio State and the Big Ten conference.

But did you know there are more than 1,100 colleges and universities that offer varsity sports programs in three divisions across the NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association), the primary governing body of college athletics? Nearly half a million student-athletes (the latest estimates vary between 480,000 and 495,000) play at NCAA schools in 28 sports (men and women) in a typical year.

Another 250 schools with varsity sports are represented in the NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics), the other national sanctioning body for four-year college athletics programs. About 77,000 student-athletes compete at NAIA schools in 27 men’s and women’s sports.

Many – but not all – colleges award athletic scholarships and only about two percent of high school athletes in any particular year will earn a “full-ride” scholarship, which includes tuition, room & board and books and fees.

Three Divisions of the NCAA

The NCAA consists of three divisions:

  • Division I
  • Division II
  • Division III

The top two divisions offer athletic scholarships and targeted financial aid, but Division III, the largest of the three in number of schools, does not offer athletic scholarships.

The NCAA states that its “overall mission is to make athletics an integral part of the educational experience at all member schools.”

Division I

Division I is comprised of 357 member schools (including a handful transitioning to Division I from lower divisions) representing every state. Most of the major colleges and universities with the largest student bodies and the biggest athletic budgets are represented in Division I. Division I boasts large state-run public schools as well as renowned private academic institutions.

For football only, Division I is subdivided into two divisions, FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision), whose teams are eligible for postseason bowl games and the national title, and the (FCS) Football Championship Subdivision, which conducts its own 24-team post-season national championship tournament.

(Note: Due to the coronavirus pandemic, most FCS conferences and teams postponed the fall 2020 season to the spring of 2021 and the NCAA moved the 2020 FCS playoffs to April and May 2021, with the playoffs reduced to a field of 16 teams and the FCS title game scheduled for May 15 or 16.)

Division II

Division II is comprised of 308 member schools (including a handful in transition). Division II includes schools in 45 states (including Alaska), as well as three members in Puerto Rico and the NCAA’s only member from Canada (Simon Fraser University).

Although Division II schools range in size from more than 25,000 to less than 2,500 students, about 87 percent of the schools have an enrollment of less than 8,000. Division II’s “partial-scholarship” financial aid model provides student-athletes an opportunity to participate in scholarship athletics with an eye toward national championships.

According to the NCAA: “Division II student-athletes are just as competitive and, in many cases, just as skilled as their Division I counterparts, but institutions in Division II generally don’t have the financial resources to devote to their athletics programs or choose not to place such a heavy financial emphasis on them.”

In past years, many top Division II programs regularly played games against Division I teams. 

Division III

Division III is comprised of 446 members schools, making it the largest NCAA division by number of schools as well as number of participants (195,000).

Many of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges are Division III members, who do not award athletic scholarships, but offer smaller campuses and class sizes. Many Division III schools make themselves attractive to prospective student-athletes by offering other forms of financial aid, including academic merit scholarships, grants and low-interest loans.

NAIA

Though academic eligibility requirements at NAIA schools differ in some cases from those at most NCAA institutions, NAIA member institutions provide additional opportunities for students to continue playing in a college setting.

Observers have debated whether the quality of play in NAIA is better than NCAA Division II or Division III (and even smaller Division I programs), and that debate continues. But there’s no debate that the competition within NAIA is intense. The NAIA has produced many well-known athletes, including NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen.

NAIA schools offer athletic scholarships, though most are partial.

In past years, major NAIA sports such as football and men’s basketball were divided into divisions, but that practice has ended; all NAIA teams now compete in a single division.

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