Many high school student-athletes have a goal to continue playing their sport in college. For many that goal involves the desire to play Division I sports.
Is playing a Division I sport the right fit for you, though? What does this kind of experience entail? Is this the only path worth pursuing?
With regard to varsity college athletics, there are four main levels of play worth investigating: NCAA Division I, NCAA Division II, NCAA Division III and NAIA. Before making a decision on which level of play you'd like to pursue, it's important to do a lot of research.
Everyone's research process is a little different. With that in mind, some of the most basic tactics include visiting a school's website, comparing yourself to the player profiles to the team's current player and determining if there's a general need for your skills or position. Chances are that most—if not all—schools you look at will put themselves and their corresponding athletic programs in the best light possible. After all, that's the whole point of a website—it's a marketing tool.
That's why thoughtful research will help you make informed decisions.
This is the highest level and requires the largest time commitment. That typically means there's no true "offseason" like in high school. In addition to playing each season, there will be structured offseason programs (both individual and team-based) in which athletes must participate. Depending on the school, in-season traveling may be farther than simply staying within your current region of the country.
Division I athletics can truly feel like a part-time job from a time commitment standpoint, so it's crucial to know if it's what you want as part of your college experience.
With this commitment comes some potential rewards in the form of scholarships. These awards will vary by sport and even by year depending on a coach's budget, and there are variables that can impact how they're even administered/awarded. This includes, full, half and partial scholarships, which can go a long way to making a certain college experience possible.
Obviously, Division II athletics is a step below Division I. It's still very competitive and there are still structured offseason activities, but it's a little more restricted for these particular programs.
The biggest similarity between D-I and D-II athletics is that they both offer an opportunity for students to earn financial aid based on athletic ability. There are full scholarships out there if you find the right school. However, the majority are equivalency scholarships at the D-II level (which is a fancy way of saying partial scholarships).
For all NCAA schools that award athletic scholarships, prospective student-athletes must know the rules regarding official and unofficial visits. They should also be signing up for the NCAA eligibility center.
Division III athletic programs differ from the two above levels because, while competition is still intercollegiate and competitive, participation is much more for the love of the game and having the experience of being a student-athlete than anything else.
In-season travel is mostly regional, and the biggest perk for D-III athletes is they actually have an offseason to rest, recover and maybe even enjoy other experiences on campus. After all, you're more than just an athlete, right?
D-III schools aren't allowed to offer athletic scholarships, so practice time is reduced. This would seem like a disadvantage, but schools can make up for this lack of support through grants, merit scholarships and other financial aid options.
This level of play is different than the other three simply because it's not affiliated with the NCAA. The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics was founded in 1937 as a governing body of small athletics programs dedicated to character-driven intercollegiate sports.
It's not uncommon for student-athletes to have never heard of the NAIA since the NCAA takes up most of our brain space and internet headlines. Despite that, 65,000-plus student-athletes participate in this level each year. About $600 million worth of scholarships are typically handed out each year in 26 different sports, all of which crown a national champion.
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