The NAIA is the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. It is made up of over 250 colleges and universities and 65,000 student-athletes. According to their mission statement they are “a governing body of small athletic programs that are dedicated to character-driven intercollegiate athletics.” In addition, the NAIA provides member institutions “opportunities to support their institutional strategic priorities.” Essentially this means schools can spend less on their athletic budgets while maintaining competitive teams. If your child would enjoy being part of a smaller campus community, take a look at NAIA schools to broaden your options.
Similarities between the NAIA and NCAA
The athletic experience in the NAIA is essentially the same as the NCAA. The NAIA has scholarships, conferences, playoffs, and national championships just as the NCAA does. It is not unusual for NAIA and NCAA Division 2 and 3 teams play each other. Usually these games are early in the season before conference play begins. As a student athlete, your child will not notice any significant difference between their NAIA experience and an experience at a small NCAA school. Great athletes compete everywhere. As women’s soccer coach Todd Clark says, “Some of the best players I ever coached played for me in NAIA and Division 2.” Of course there are more great athletes in NCAA DI, but you’ll find a few outstanding athletes at every level.
Differences between the NAIA and NCAA
Although student athletes may not notice them, there are huge differences between these two athletic associations. Colleges and universities intentionally choose one association over another because they see that association as the best fit for their institution.
The first key difference is the student body enrollment. NAIA schools are often small, private colleges. In contrast, both enormous, state schools and small, private schools belong to the same NCAA conferences. Some small NCAA schools never have a real chance of success in their conference because of these disparities. (Read What is the NCAA? to learn more.) There are a lot of things to love about a smaller college campus. A small student body often translates to small class sizes, which provide your child with more one on one interaction with professors.
Second, and related to student body size, NAIA schools spend less overall on their athletic budgets. Large schools with enormous athletic budgets choose to join the NCAA. Naia.org claims NCAA Division II and III schools spend 70% more on athletic budgets than NAIA schools.
Third, the NAIA has fewer rules and regulations than the NCAA. The number of rules, regulations, and codes is probably one percent of the behemoth NCAA manual. The result is that there are some amazing teams, but some that are dreadful. Schools have wide latitude in setting their standards. On the other hand, women’s tennis Coach Jamie Sanchez sees a benefit to fewer rules and regulations:
“The NAIA recruiting process for both freshmen and transfers is less cumbersome, with few restrictions on the contact between a student-athlete and a coach. More frequent communication allows the student to become more comfortable with the school and athletics staff.”
An emphasis on character
Remember, the mission statement proclaims they are “a governing body of small athletic programs that are dedicated to character-driven intercollegiate athletics.” They created a program named Champions of Character centered around five core values: integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship, and servant leadership.
Character driven athletics is not just a platitude. Schools promote character-driven athletics. Each school provides clear steps to assist their teams to take character seriously. The NAIA provides training for both coaches and athletes. Coaches talk about it with the athletes. Colleges bring in speakers who address these values. The Champions of Character program is more than just words on the website. There is a plan in place to put the words into action.
NAIA schools are good options
Don’t overlook the NAIA because it is not part of the NCAA brand name product. It is legitimate and it is no small entity.
The benefit of going to an NAIA school is likely in the school itself. Most are private institutions. Many are religious. There are a large number of both Protestant (of many denominations) and Catholic institutions. Each institution has much more freedom to be themselves. For example, the NAIA does not force schools to play Sunday games. The rules allow programs to play on Sunday, and many do. But Christian colleges are free to stand by their convictions and play on other days of the week. This is in contrast to the NCAA, where schools play conference games when they are told to. Many NCAA conferences compete primarily on Fridays and Sundays.
Many NAIA schools have small student bodies. Expect small class sizes with a lot of interaction. Campuses may be friendly places where your child will form great relationships. Coaches, professors, and administrators have time to invest in each student. These are just a few benefits of a small college or university.
When you hear the words “small, private college” do you immediately worry about cost? Don’t overlook a school because of the sticker price. Private schools have resources to make an education there more affordable. Men’s soccer coach Carlos Saenz said,
“Another misconception about the NAIA is that with it being primarily composed of private institutions, NAIA schools are too expensive. While the price tag might look expensive, NAIA colleges offer great scholarship opportunities for potential prospects. This helps make NAIA colleges affordable and very competitive with cost compared to Dl, Dll, and Dlll’s.”
What about NAIA scholarships?
Member schools are free to offer athletic scholarships. The NAIA does set upper limits on the total amount of money offered to athletes in each sport.
Many NAIA colleges offer scholarships, but not all. Each institution makes its own determinations. While NCAA Division 1 and Division 2 are fairly equal in their distribution, NAIA colleges vary widely in the amount of athletic aid they give out. I coached at an NAIA school for 3 years. Within our conference, the range of athletic scholarships awarded varied from $0 – to an average of several thousand dollars per student. The conference standings were similar year after year. There was a top third, middle third, and bottom third to the conference. The standings were almost a mirror image of the amounts of athletic scholarships being handed out. Within the NAIA, there is a distinction between the haves and the have-nots.
When speaking with college coaches, be willing to ask about athletic scholarships available. More specifically, ask about the potential of your child receiving an athletic scholarship.
*Note: Athletic scholarships are not the only avenue to pay for college. You need to be looking at the entire financial package. In the end, it doesn’t matter what the money is labeled as. It is the final price tag that matters. Scholarships are Great, but how much will you actually pay
Remember, schools also offer academic and need-based scholarships. Always wait to see the full package before you write off a school.
Read more about financial aid in the post NAIA Athletic Scholarships.
Are there tryouts for NAIA programs?
There are no restrictions on holding tryouts. Each coach may determine if they want to hold tryouts or have you tryout when you visit campus.
Is there an eligibility center?
Yes, there is an eligibility center. If you are interested in any NAIA institution you will need to register at their eligibility center. This is also a valuable site to find member schools and get your name out to these coaches.
The eligibility center also makes certain your student academically eligible to compete. Athletes must meet two of the following to be eligible: 18 ACT, 970 SAT, 2.0 GPA out of 4.0, or be ranked in the top half of your graduating class.
If you’re considering a NAIA school, register with the eligibility center. This is separate from the NCAA eligibility center. If you are considering schools in both associations, be sure to register with both eligibility centers.
Be sure to ask questions
The NAIA is a diverse group of schools with fewer regulations, so expect to see all kinds of stuff. Both good and bad. One sure way of finding out what kind of school your child is considering is to ask a lot of questions. Without strict recruiting guidelines, your child can form a good relationship with the coach. Use that time to your advantage by asking all sorts of questions.
Ask about the school, scholarships offered, what the traditional season, non-traditional season, and off-season look like. The range is diverse and could end up fitting your athlete very nicely. Your goal should always be to find the school and athletic program that is the best fit for your individual child.
Really, the only drawback to the NAIA for an athlete is you don’t have the brand name recognition of the NCAA. Otherwise, you will not notice a difference on the whole. Often the NAIA will be overlooked or given a bad rap by the NCAA schools. Don’t worry about the acronym. Find a school your child loves.
The NAIA can be a wonderful environment in which to compete and attend college. So write down your questions, seek out the answers, and find the perfect fit for your child.
This post was updated September 20, 2019