The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) is a non-profit organization that coordinates athletic events, develops rules, and ensures those rules are followed within member institutions in the United States. It was founded in 1906 to protect the interests of student athletes. They continue to promote student academic success and “create the rules for fair and safe competition.” The NCAA governs the athletic programs of over 1,000 institutions. The majority of college athletes will compete under the guidelines of the NCAA, so you should understand a few basic things about the NCAA.
The NCAA is divided into 3 divisions, aptly named Division 1, 2, and 3. Each Division is broken up into conferences. Each conference usually has between 8-16 schools. Teams within each conference play each other to determine who will advance to a national tournament. Whereas high schools compete for a state title, colleges ultimately compete for a national title. Each conference will have their own acronym (e.g. SEC, ACC, WAC). The NCAA is responsible for organizing national championships.
The NCAA sets very specific rules that all coaches and athletes in each division must follow. Enforcement officers, appointed by the schools, make sure those rules are followed. The rules vary by Division. For example, don’t assume the recruiting rules for Division 2 are the same as the rules for Division 3.
Following are the numbers of institutions in each division (active membership as of 2019):
- 351 members in Division 1
- 308 members in Division 2 (and 6 schools in process of joining)
- 443 members in Division 3 (and 8 provisional or reclassifying)
How are schools classified in the NCAA?
What determines why a college or university falls into a certain division? To most of us, this is a mystery and a matter for speculation. Based on a number of complicated factors, like athletic department budgets and facilities, each school determines which Division it would like to be in.
One common misconception is that it relates to ability or rankings. I often hear people ask about winning programs in Division 2 or 3, “Why don’t they move up a division where they belong?” Teams and athletic programs do not advance in the divisions based upon athletic records.
Only an institution as a whole can change NCAA divisions or from the NAIA to NCAA (or vice versa). Currently, the NAIA is losing member institutions. In the last three years over 20 schools have moved from the NAIA to the NCAA. It is a long and arduous process for institutions to enter a new classification. I won’t go into detail, but it takes years and quite a bit of expense to reclassify. An institution will not move up because a team or the entire athletic program had a winning streak.
Another misconception is that the enrollment of the student body affects what division the school is in, as it does in high schools all over the country. This is a myth.
Let’s take a look at some of the enrollment gaps within divisions:
NCAA Division 1
Division 1 is the top tier of the NCAA ranking system. While very large universities compete at the Division 1 level, there are also schools with much smaller student bodies that have chosen – and qualified for – Division 1 for other reasons.
NCAA Division 1 is what we see on TV. These are the Goliaths of sport, the mega universities. Well, yeah some of them. The median enrollment in Division 1 schools is 9895. At the high end are the mighty universities with student bodies larger than many cities in this country. There are six schools that top 50,000: Arizona State, University of Central Florida, Ohio State, Florida International, Texas A&M, and the University of Texas at Austin.
However, not all Division 1 schools are spilling over with students. Here are a few examples of smaller universities: Rice has almost 4000 undergraduate students. Davidson has 1,800. Perennial fixtures in March Madness: Gonzaga, Wake Forest, and Bradley all have around 5,000 students.
NCAA Division 2
In NCAA Division 2, most conferences have great disparities in enrollment. 52.9% of the institutions have fewer than 2,500 students (163 schools). 2.6% (eight schools) have more than 15,000 students. In the GLIAC (Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) for example, Grand Valley State has over 23,000 students and Northwood University has an enrollment of 1900. Remember, these schools are in the same conference, therefore they compete against each other.
There are both private and public institutions in Division 2. Of the universities, 48% are public and 52% are private.
Check out NCAA Division 2 facts and figures on the NCAA website.
NCAA Division 3
The NCAA Division 3 is what we typically think of as the small schools. Many are small, the average student body being 1,700. However, not all of these schools are small. In the ASC (American Southwest Conference) we find the tiny University of the Ozarks currently weighing in at 800 students. On the other end of the spectrum, and weighing in at a hefty 15,000 undergraduate students, is the University of Texas at Dallas.
The majority of NCAA Division 3 schools are private. Only 20% of Division 3 institutions are public.
There are institutions of all sizes in Division 3. Some have outstanding athletic programs. Size and skill level do not determine which NCAA Division a college program is in. There are a lot of good reasons for great athletes to consider any one of the Divisions. Read this post to find out why even Division 3 is a good option. Or you can hear from athletes who chose a Division 3 program in the post Great Athletes Avoid Division 3, True or False?
What athletes need to understand about the NCAA
Let’s wrap this up with four points you and your child need to understand about the NCAA:
1. Your athlete should choose a college they love.
Don’t worry about which NCAA Division the athletic program is in. Your child should look for a school offering the right degree programs. Your athlete should consider whether or not they are a good fit for the athletic program they are considering. Finally, never leave finances out of your calculations. Your child needs to choose a school you can afford. The NCAA Division of the school will not affect any one of those considerations.
2. Learn about the recruiting process with resources from the NCAA.
Download the 2018-2019 Guide for the College Bound Student Athlete. (This is the most recent version on the NCAA Website.) Read it.
3. Register with the NCAA Eligibility Center.
Before an official campus visit athletes hoping to compete in Division 1 and 2 must be registered with the NCAA Eligibility Center. The Eligibility Center used to be known as the Clearinghouse. If you see that term on older internet posts (probably even in some of my older articles), it is the same thing. Once you have registered with the NCAA Eligibility Center, they will send you email reminders of what steps you need to take next in the recruiting process. If your athlete is undecided about where to play, or only considering Division 3, they can also create an account with the NCAA and receive email reminders.
4. Follow the NCAA rules.
NCAA rules govern the recruiting process. College coaches are responsible for knowing and following those rules. Generally speaking, follow the lead of the coaches recruiting you. However, if the college coach is mistaken or dishonest, the student athlete will be held accountable for the rule violation. You and your child need to be actively learning the recruiting rules. If something a coach tells you seems off there are a few ways you can double check:
- Ask your club or high school coach for help. Your high school athletic director is also a good resource for you.
- Go to the NCAA website and see if you can find the answer. The website is enormous and sometimes difficult to use. But it is the authoritative source for information.
- Finally, join The Recruiting Code Facebook community. You can ask the parents and coaches who are part of that group any question you have. And I’m in there every day answering questions as well.
Don’t let the NCAA or the recruiting process overwhelm you. With hard work and using the resources at your disposal, you can help your child have an athletic career that will impact the rest of their life!
(This article was updated August 19, 2019)