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Is An NAIA School My Best College Sports Choice?

By David Brackman

Many high school athletes have found success at the small colleges and universities that comprise the membership of the NAIA.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) is the other governing body of college sports at four-year schools that is not named the NCAA. About 77,000 student-athletes compete at 250 NAIA schools in 36 states in 27 sports (13 men, 14 women). That translates to about one out of every seven college athletes donning an NAIA uniform.

The average enrollment at NAIA schools is below 2,000. Formed in 1940, the NAIA now has 21 conferences, including nine that sponsor football. NAIA institutions are generally private (82 percent) and faith-based (65 percent).

An opportunity to play

The NAIA emphasizes how it provides the “opportunity to play” for athletes who would have otherwise missed out on a competitive college sports experience.

The NAIA has produced many well-known athletes, including NBA Hall of Famer Scottie Pippen (University of Central Arkansas) and 2016 World Series MVP Ben Zobrist (Olivet Nazarene College).


Full scholarships at NAIA schools are rare--partial scholarships are usually awarded. Athletes at NAIA schools are awarded $800 million in annual scholarships, an average of a little more than $10,000 per student-athlete. (Not all athletes are awarded athletic scholarships, however.)

The maximum number of scholarships for football is 24 (compared to 85 at the NCAA’s top level) and 12 for other sports. That means that in some cases, the number of scholarships awarded by NAIA teams is more than their NCAA brothers and sisters.

Because of generally small campus sizes, the NAIA can rightly point to a competitive balance among its members in both financial and institutional resources.

In past years, major NAIA sports such as football and men’s basketball were divided into divisions, but that practice ended in 2020; NAIA teams now compete in a single division in all sports. Select NAIA games have been broadcast on cable networks since 2008 and the NAIA football championship game has been broadcast since 2014.

NAIA recruiting rules vary from the NCAA in many ways. For example: Unlike the NCAA, the NAIA hosts its own showcases in several sports so that its coaches can connect directly with prospects. The NCAA relies on third parties to host showcases that its coaches attend as invited guests.

Student-athletes may wish to consider NAIA member schools, which offer many outstanding experiences in competition, in the classroom and in the community.


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