The NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) has been around since 1906. It governs the athletic programs of over 1,000 institutions. 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. And of course each conference will have their own acronym (e.g. SEC, ACC, WAC).
The NCAA sets very specific rules that all coaches and athletes in each division must follow. Each school must have enforcement officers in place to make sure those rules are followed.
Following are the numbers of institutions in each division (active membership as of 2014):
- 346 members in Division 1
- 291 members in Division 2
- 439 members in Division 3
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. 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 divisions or from the NAIA to NCAA or vice versa. It is 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. The decisions are not made lightly and do not happen 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 is what we see on TV. These are the goliaths of sport, the mega universities. Well, yeah some of them. The average enrollment is 12,900. These 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 examples of just a few of the smaller universities that are well known: Rice has 2,800 students. Davidson has 1,700. Perennial fixtures in March Madness: Gonzaga, Wake Forest, and Bradley all have less than 5,000 students.
In NCAA Division 2, most conferences have great disparities in enrollment. The average enrollment is 4,200. 46% of the institutions have less than 2,500 students, 2% (six schools) have more than 15,000 students. In the GLIAC (Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference) for example, Grand Valley State has 21,000 students and Malone University has 1,600.
The NCAA Division 3 is what we typically think of as the small schools. Many are small, the average student body being 2,600. Not all of these schools, however, are small. In the ASC (American Southwest Conference) we find the tiny, private University of the Ozarks currently weighing in at 580 students (when a school is that small we round to the 10’s place). On the other end of the spectrum and weighing in at a hefty 10,600 students is a state school, the University of Texas at Dallas. For perspective, at the University of the Ozarks, the baseball team comprises almost 6.5% of the student body. At the University of Texas at Dallas, the baseball team is 0.3% of the campus.
Size and skill level are not the determining factors of what Division a college program is in. In future posts we will consider each of the NCAA Divisions separately.