NCAA Divisions I and II schools provide more than $2.9 billion in athletics scholarships annually to more than 150,000 student-athletes. Division III schools do not offer athletics scholarships.

Only about two-percent of high school athletes are awarded athletics scholarships to compete in college. Of the student-athletes participating in sports with professional leagues, very few become professional athletes. A college education is the most rewarding benefit of the student-athlete experience.

Full scholarships cover tuition and fees, room, board and course-related books. Most student-athletes who receive athletics scholarships receive an amount covering a portion of these costs. Many student-athletes also benefit from academic scholarships, NCAA financial aid programs such as the NCAA Division I Student-Athlete Opportunity Fund and need-based aid such as Federal Pell Grants.

Division I schools may provide student-athletes with multiyear scholarships. Additionally, Division I schools may pay for student-athletes to finish their bachelor’s or master’s degrees after they finish playing NCAA sports.

If a school plans to reduce or not renew a student-athlete’s aid, the school must notify the student-athlete in writing by July 1 and provide an opportunity to appeal. In most cases, coaches decide who receives a scholarship, the scholarship amount and whether it will be renewed. 

What are the divisions in college athletics?
Source: Justin Berkman,

Division I
Division I schools have the biggest student bodies, the largest athletic budgets, and the most athletic scholarships. More than 350 schools that field more than 6,000 teams providing opportunities to more than 170,000 student-athletes are members of NCAA Division I.

All of the major sports conferences, including the SEC, Big 10, Pac 12, and ACC are composed of Division I schools.

Ivy League Institutions are Division I, but they don’t offer athletic scholarships. The Ivy League schools are Brown, Columbia, Cornell, Dartmouth, Harvard, the University of Pennsylvania, Princeton, and Yale.

Rules for Division I Schools

The NCAA sets standards for its member institutions to meet in order for a school to reach or maintain Division I status. These rules are set to ensure competitive balance and gender equity.

Also, there are specific rules for football and basketball. Because those are the sports that generate the most revenue, they’re more closely monitored, and the disparity between the haves and have-nots in those sports is much greater.

Division I schools have to sponsor at least seven sports for men and seven sports for women (or six for men and eight for women).

Each playing season (fall, winter, and spring) has to be represented by each gender.

For sports other than football and basketball, Division I schools must play 100% of the minimum number of contests against Division I opponents. Anything over the minimum number of games has to be 50% Division I.

Men’s and women’s basketball teams have to play all but two games against Division I teams.

Men’s basketball teams must play 1/3 of their games in their home arenas.

Division I schools must meet minimum financial aid awards for their athletics program, and there are maximum athletic financial aid awards for each sport that a Division I school can’t exceed.

FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision)

The FBS is the highest level of collegiate football. FBS schools participate in bowl games. There is an obscene amount of money in FBS football, so much so that the highest paid FBS coaches make $7 million annually. In 2014, Forbes valued the University of Texas football team at $131 million.

FBS teams have to meet minimum attendance requirements. An FBS team must average 15,000 people in actual or paid attendance per home game. Attendance requirements must be met once in a rolling two-year period.

FCS (Football Championship Subdivision)
FCS is the next highest level of collegiate football after FBS. FCS schools participate in an NCAA-run championship.

FCS teams do not need to meet minimum attendance requirements.

Division II

Almost 300 schools are part of Division II. Division II schools still offer athletic scholarships, but there are fewer scholarships than in Division I. Full athletic scholarships are more common in Division I; most Division II athletes receive partial athletic scholarships.

The schools and athletic department budgets are smaller in Division II than in Division I. While Division I schools often travel nationally to compete, regional rivalries dominate the schedules of Division II.

Rules for Division II Schools

Just like for Division I schools, the NCAA sets standards for Division II schools in order to maintain competitive balance, opportunities for all athletes, and gender equity.

Division II schools have to sponsor at least five sports for men and five for women (or four for men and six for women), with two team sports for each gender, and each playing season represented by each gender.

Each sport has contest and participant minimums.

Football and men’s and women’s basketball must play at least 50% of their games against Division II, FBS, or FCS opponents.

Unlike Division I, there are no attendance requirements for football or arena game requirements for basketball.

There are maximum financial aid awards for each sport.

Division III

Division III is the largest of all of the NCAA divisions. In Division III, there are 444 institutions and more than 170,000 student-athletes.

A key difference in Division III is that there are no athletic scholarships. However, a majority of the athletes are on some form of academic or need-based aid. Also, there are shorter practice hours and less travel for games in D III.

In Division III, the emphasis is on the value of competing in sports to the participant. There is less of a focus on generating revenue or creating events for spectators.

Rules for Division III Schools

The rules for Division III are designed to maintain gender equity and to ensure that schools offer a minimum number of opportunities to all athletes.

Division III schools have to sponsor at least five sports for men and five for women, with two team sports for each gender, and each playing season represented by each gender.

There are contest and participant minimums for each sport.

Major Differences Between Divisions

Division I is the most prestigious, has the most money, and the highest caliber of athletes. Division I schools also are the largest on average.

Division II still offers scholarships, but there are fewer, and Division II schools typically have fewer athletic department funds and fewer sports teams than Division I schools.  There are an average of 18 sports at Division I schools and 15 at Division II.

Division III offers no athletic scholarships, tends to have the lowest level of competition, but the highest number of participants across all divisions. Division III schools offer an average of 18 sports per school. Also, Division III has the highest average percentage of the student body participating in sports.

Following is a breakdown by the numbers of these differences between NCAA divisions.

Generally, the biggest disparities between divisions are in the traditional revenue generating sports of football and men’s basketball.  While the average attendance of a home football game at an FBS school is over 44,000, the average attendance of a home football game at a Division III school is less than 2,000. Many FBS head coaches receive multi-million dollar salaries. Meanwhile, many Division III head football coaches also have teaching positions at their colleges to supplement their incomes.

It is important to note that just because a school is in a lower division doesn’t mean that its student body doesn’t care about sports or that the school is not as concerned with its athletes. Many Division II and III schools have passionate fan bases, especially in the high-profile sports and for teams that regularly compete for championships.

Other Intercollegiate Sports Associations

Besides the NCAA, there are two other governing bodies for intercollegiate sports, the NAIA and the NJCAA.

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or the NAIA, has about 300 member institutions. NAIA schools are smaller and have relatively low athletic department budgets, roughly on par with Division III schools. However, unlike NCAA Division III, NAIA schools do offer athletic scholarships. Examples of NAIA schools include Morningside College, Mayville State University, and Florida Memorial University. The NAIA doesn’t have the prestige of the NCAA, but it offers an alternative for smaller schools that want to compete.

The National Junior College Athletics Association, or NJCAA, is the governing board for sports at two-year colleges. Members of the NJCAA can also offer athletic scholarships.


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