When researching colleges, many students are interested in athletics – as athletes or as spectators. The good news is that most colleges have multiple levels at which students can participate in athletics: intramural, club, and varsity. Intramural athletics are the most informal, where students at the same school compete against each other. Club athletic teams compete against other colleges, but are funded by students, not the college. Varsity athletics get the most attention, and are what most students think of when they think of college athletics.
Varsity athletics in college is monitored and overseen by the National Collegiate Athletics Association (NCAA). There are three main NCAA athletic divisions: Division I, Division II, and Division III.
Division I. When you think about big time college athletics with thousands of spirited fans, you’re probably thinking about Division I. These schools tend to have large student populations, manage the largest athletic budgets, have the widest range of athletic programs, and offer athletic scholarships. Division I athletes often have to spend most of their time outside academics devoted to their sport.
Division II. Division II schools are usually smaller than Division I schools, with smaller athletic programs, but they still offer athletic scholarships. Division II schools offer more of a balance for student-athletes between academics and athletics, and participating in the campus community in a broader capacity.
Division III. Division III is the largest NCAA division, with more member colleges and student-athletes than Division I and Division II. Division III schools are usually smaller than schools in the other divisions, and academics are the primary focus for Division III schools; also, there are no athletic scholarships. Division III athletes have the most flexibility to participate in their college community in multiple capacities.
As a prospective student (varsity athlete or not), it’s important to consider the type of athletic program that’s the best fit for you. At many colleges, regardless of Division, it can be very difficult to walk on to a varsity team. At some schools, even the club athletics teams are quite competitive. Intramural athletics, on the other hand, are open to all students at most schools.
As you research colleges, consider the ways you would like to be involved with athletics and take that into account as you build your list of colleges.