There are five different levels at which collegiate athletes can play. The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) regulates Division I, Division II, and Division III sports, and colleges may also offer club sports, intramural sports, or both. In terms of competition, Division I sports are typically the most competitive and intramural sports are the least, often with less skilled players who are more interested in fun than competition. Of course, the level of competition also depends on the sport, the skill level of the players, and the dedication of the team as a whole.
There are dozens of athletic associations that exist throughout the United States. Some are religiously affiliated, some national, and others regionally-based. Each association has member colleges, some of which are members of more than one association, that are divided into conferences. Conferences consist of schools located within the same geographical region. During a season, teams from the same conference compete against each other. When it comes time for a national championship, teams from different conferences may end up in competition.
The NCAA and the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) are subdivided into both divisions and conferences. Divisions are based on the size of the institution, the level of competition, and the funding of the athletic program. Division I schools, for example, tend to give out full scholarships to athletes, while Division III schools are not allowed to award any athletic scholarships. The NCAA is the largest athletic association, consisting of over 1,100 schools (more than double the membership of any other athletic association) and 100 conferences. As such, Student Caffé’s articles about collegiate sports will focus on NCAA sports, unless stated otherwise. If you are interested in learning more about other athletic associations, consider exploring this list.
The NCAA regulates the following sports:
The NCAA Division I consists of almost 350 institutions, 6,000 teams, and over 170,000 students annually. Division I schools are often large, well-funded research universities that can offer respectable scholarships to their recruits. This may be due to media contracts and televised games that bring in funding for the institution. Student-athletes must maintain certain levels of academic achievement, but often, their main focus is sports. A list of Division I schools can be found here.
Sports offered at the Division I level differ for men and women. The men’s Division I sports with the most teams are basketball, cross country, golf, and baseball, in that order. For women, they are basketball, cross country, outdoor track and field, and volleyball. These are just the most popular; overall, there are over 20 sports that can be played at the Division I level.
If you want to play Division I football, you should note that there are three subdivisions within the sport: schools who take part in bowl games (Football Bowl Subdivision), those who take part in championships (Football Championship Subdivision), and those who participate in neither. These subdivisions do not affect other sports at Division I schools.
The NCAA Division II consists of over 300 institutions and nearly 120,000 students annually. Division II schools feature the same sports as Division I schools. Their athletes are often just as physically able as those who compete in Division I sports, but the schools are unable to fund the athletic programs as well as Division I schools. Instead of receiving scholarships based solely on athletics, Division II student-athletes receive a combination of athletic and merit-based scholarships and need-based financial aid. A list of Division II schools can be found here.
The NCAA Division III consists of 450 institutions and over 190,000 students annually. It is the largest division of NCAA-regulated sports, and like the other two divisions, it offers many of the same sports. Division III student-athletes focus mainly on academics, with sports taking place on the side. Many students participate in extracurricular activities besides sports or take time off from their teams to study abroad. Competition is still high between Division III teams, but seasons are shorter, and games are played regionally instead of nationwide so that less time is taken away from classes. While other students may recognize them as members of a sports team, Division III student-athletes are treated as normal members of campus instead of high-profile athletes (as they would be at a Division I school). Since the main focus is academics, Division III schools do not award athletic scholarships. Many student-athletes are eligible for financial aid or merit-based awards. A list of Division III schools can be found here.
Club sports are not regulated by the NCAA but are similar to Division III sports. Simply speaking, students join a team and compete against other teams regionally and/or nationally. Club sports, unlike NCAA-regulated teams, are student-run and typically are open to all. Schools may have multiple club teams for the same sport. Carleton College, for example, has two men’s ultimate frisbee teams. One is more competitive than the other, but both have won national championships. For a competitive student who doesn’t want to play NCAA sports or whose sport is not offered at the NCAA level, club sports may be the answer.
Intramural (IM) sports are also not regulated by the NCAA. Typically, students interested in intramural sports join an extracurricular club for a specific sport (IM soccer, for example). All of the students who signed up to participate in that sport are then divided into teams. The IM teams then compete against each other, even though all members of each team are from the same school. Students who play IM sports are typically looking for an athletic outlet without the pressure of competition at the college level. Many are just hoping to have fun and burn off some extra steam.
Participating in IM sports also gives students a chance to play games that are not offered at the NCAA or club level, such as flag football, dodgeball, badminton, and quidditch. Games are typically scheduled in the evenings after classes are over, and there may or may not be any practices. Skill is not necessary since many IM teams are more about getting together, exercising, and having fun than they are about winning. The time commitment is minimal.
Page last updated: 02/2019