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NCAA Division III: A Brief Overview

By David Brackman

Division III, the non-athletic scholarship division of the NCAA, is the largest of the organization’s three divisions of intercollegiate athletics in terms of both member schools and number of athletes.

Nearly 200,000 college student-athletes enjoy a fulfilling college athletic experience at the Division III level. Many have found their way to professional sports and excelled at that level after college.

Division III institutions are exclusively four-year institutions, but they do not award athletic scholarships. Instead, they offer smaller campuses and class sizes. Many of the nation’s top liberal arts colleges are Division III members, including Amherst and Swarthmore colleges.

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 III, or D3, in this article.

By the numbers

The NCAA reports that approximately 195,000 men’s and women’s student-athletes participated in Division III sports at 446 colleges and universities (including a handful in transition) among 43 conferences in 36 states and the District of Columbia in the latest year reported. That translates to about 40 percent of all NCAA athletes participating at the D3 level.

Eighty percent of D3 member schools are private colleges and universities, while 20 percent are public institutions. Although D3 schools range from more than 38,000 to a miniscule 405 in number of students enrolled, the median number of undergraduates on D3 campuses is 2,750. Yet despite their smaller size, D3 schools sponsor 19 intercollegiate sports on average.

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.

Of its more than $18.8 billion operating budget, the NCAA allocated approximately 3.18 percent, or nearly $600 million in financial resources, toward D3 sports (compared with 92.45 percent for D1 and 4.37 percent for D2) in the most recent year reported.

Although there are no athletic scholarships awarded at the D3 level, the recruitment process is highly competitive, just like the games on D3 fields and courts across the country.

If a D3 coach wants a high school student-athlete to join his or her program, college admissions officers will often find other financial enticements to lure the prospect, including grants and academic scholarships that do not need to be repaid, as well as low-interest student loans, to ease the economic burden of college tuition and costs.

According to the NCAA: “When high school seniors decide to be Division III student-athletes, their choice illustrates their passion for the sport and pursuit of an education. Division III student-athletes compete not for financial reward, but quite simply, for the love of the game.”

Like its bigger D1 and D2 counterparts, Division III has produced several programs that have dominated their sport, including Mount Union (13 football titles), North Park (five men’s basketball titles) and Marietta (six baseball titles).

Division III conferences

With nearly 450 schools in 43 conferences, NCAA Division III colleges and universities are scattered across the vast American landscape.

A list of the 43 NCAA Division III conferences:

  • Allegheny Mountain Collegiate Conference
  • American Rivers Conference
  • American Southwest Conference
  • Atlantic East Conference
  • Centennial Conference
  • City University of New York Athletic Conference
  • Coast to Coast Athletic Conference
  • College Conference of Illinois and Wisconsin
  • Colonial States Athletic Conference
  • Commonwealth Coast Conference
  • Empire 8 Conference
  • Great Northeast Athletic Conference
  • Heartland Collegiate Athletic Conference
  • Landmark Conference
  • Liberty League
  • Little East Conference
  • Massachusetts State Collegiate Athletic Conference
  • Michigan Intercollegiate Athletic Association
  • Middle Atlantic Conferences
  • Midwest Conference
  • Minnesota Intercollegiate Athletic Conference
  • New England Collegiate Conference
  • New England Small College Athletic Conference
  • New England Women's and Men's Athletic Conference
  • New Jersey Athletic Conference
  • North Atlantic Conference
  • North Coast Athletic Conference
  • North Eastern Athletic Conference
  • Northern Athletics Collegiate Conference
  • Northwest Conference
  • Ohio Athletic Conference
  • Old Dominion Athletic Conference
  • Presidents' Athletic Conference
  • St. Louis Intercollegiate Athletic Conference
  • Skyline Conference
  • Southern Athletic Association
  • Southern California Intercollegiate Athletic Conference
  • Southern Collegiate Athletic Conference
  • State University of New York Athletic Conference
  • University Athletic Association
  • Upper Midwest Athletic Conference
  • USA South Athletic Conference
  • Wisconsin Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

In addition to the 43 conferences listed above, 11 single-sport conferences across four sports (two conferences in football and three each in ice hockey, lacrosse and men’s volleyball) are also part of the D3 portfolio.

Smaller athletic department budgets at the Division III level translate into mostly local travel for regular season and conference games, but some schools and successful programs break the mold with ambitious schedules that rival major programs.

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