By David Brackman
Prospective college athletes who dream of an earning an athletic scholarship often focus their attention on the big-name schools, but sometimes they make the mistake of disregarding NCAA Division II sports programs, where strong athletic traditions abound.
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the governing body of the majority of organized intercollegiate sports in the U.S. The NCAA oversees three divisions (I, II and III) with more than 1,100 total schools, but we will focus on Division II, or D2, in this article.
By the numbers
The NCAA considers Division II an “intermediate-level division of competition” between its top level, Division I, and its non-scholarship level, Division III. Prior to 1973, D2 and D3 were grouped together in the “College Division”. But they were split that year into scholarship (D2) and non-scholarship (D3) divisions.
Division II is comprised of 308 member schools (including a handful in transition). Division II includes colleges and universities in 45 states, including two Alaska schools and three members in Puerto Rico, as well as the NCAA’s only member from Canada (Simon Fraser University) competing in 23 conferences, with five independents.
Although the 308 Division II institutions range in size from more than 25,000 to less than 2,500 students, only a dozen schools have more than 15,000 undergraduates, while about 87 percent of the schools have an enrollment of less than 8,000 and about 42 percent enroll less than 2,500 students.
Of its more than $18.8 billion operating budget, the NCAA allocated approximately 4.37 percent, or more than $820 million in financial resources, toward D2 sports (compared with 92.45 percent for D1 and 3.18 percent for D3) in the most recent year reported.
The numbers of full scholarships available for each sport are less in D2, which offers 36 scholarships for football (compared to 85 at the top level in D1), 10 scholarships for men’s basketball (compared to 13 in D1) and nine scholarships for baseball (compared to 11.7 in D1).
The Division II bylaws stipulate that members are limited to a combined total of 60 full scholarship equivalents for men’s sports other than football and basketball.
Some D2 sports offer the same number of full scholarships as their D1 counterparts, including men’s cross country (12.6) and women’s ice hockey (18).
The reduced availability of athletic scholarships at the D2 level has produced a “partial-scholarship” (or targeted aid) model, in which some student-athletes earn a few thousand dollars in financial aid as an athletic scholarship, while others earn a quarter-scholarship or half-scholarship or perhaps a rare full scholarship, as long as the entire team roster and total of all athletic scholarships awarded by the school do not exceed the mandated thresholds.
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 against Division I teams, but after too many upsets by D2 teams, those inter-divisional clashes are rare today, an indication that the gap in talent between D1 and D2 is not so wide.
In less than 50 years since it was founded, Division II has produced several programs that have dominated their sport, including Kentucky Wesleyan (eight men’s basketball titles), Northwest Missouri State (six football titles), Florida Southern (nine baseball titles) and Bloomsburg (13 women’s field hockey titles).
Division II conferences
Division II is comprised of 23 conferences (not including certain one-sport leagues). Most of the 308 schools in D2 are within a bus ride from their conference foes, which saves money on travel costs. Post-season playoffs are regional and national championships are held at a site designated in advance. National championship games in football and men’s women’s basketball are televised nationwide.
A list of the 23 NCAA Division II conferences:
Five D2 schools compete as independents, with no conference affiliation, including all three schools in Puerto Rico and two in West Virginia.
Unique to Division II is the National Championships Festival, an annual event modeled after the Olympics that brings together national championship finalists from several sports in a single city over several days.
The festivals, which rotate between fall, winter and spring sports every three years, include opening and closing ceremonies and all athletes are housed together, creating a village-like experience. Six national champions are crowned. (Note: The 2020 National Championships Festival, scheduled for St. Charles, Mo., was canceled due to COVID-19 concerns.)
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