What Are the Differences Among NCAA Divisions I, II, and III?

Division I has the most intense competition, Division III the least

Men's College Basketball
Ronald Martinez / Getty Images

Colleges that belong to the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA, designate themselves as Division I, II, or III, according to NCAA guidelines that set standards for such variables as the number of teams, team sizes, game calendars, and financial support. Within the world of college sports, Division I is the most intense and Division III the least.

Students who enjoy sports but don't qualify or want to play at a highly competitive level can still compete at Division I schools by joining a club and intramural sports. Such options are excellent ways to meet other students and get involved in campus life.

NCAA Division I

Division I is the highest level of intercollegiate athletics overseen by the NCAA in the U.S. D-I schools comprise the major athletic powers in the college ranks and have larger budgets, more advanced facilities, and more athletic scholarships than Divisions II and III or smaller schools, even those that are competitive in athletics.

In 2014, student-athletes and the NCAA debated whether they should be paid. The students said that the many hours devoted to their sport, along with the money they helped to bring in, justify payment. The 231 Division I schools with data available generated $9.15 billion in revenue during the 2015 fiscal year. The NCAA turned down student-athletes' request for payment but approved unlimited free meals and snacks.

Coaching jobs for Division I teams are few and far between and, for the best of the best, extremely well compensated. Nick Saban, the legendary football coach at the University of Alabama, earned $11.1 million in 2017. Even relatively less legendary Fresno State coach Jeff Tedford earned $1.5 million that year. 

Division I Schools' Statistics

As of 2016, 351 schools were classified as Division 1, representing 49 of the 50 states. Sports played at Division I schools include hockey, basketball, baseball, and football. These schools include Boston University, UCLA, Duke University, University of Georgia, and the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.

Division I schools:

  • Offer at least 14 sports: seven for men and seven for women, or six for men and eight for women
  • Offer at least two team sports for men and
  • Can guarantee an audience of a specific size for football and basketball
  • Provide some athletic scholarships. Division I schools have to meet minimum financial aid awards for their athletics program, but there is a cap on financial aid awards for each sport.
  • Have enough games to fit each sport's requirements
  • Require students to maintain a certain GPA and take at least 16 core courses for eligibility

NCAA Division II

There are 300 schools classified as Division II. Sports in which Division II schools compete include fencing, golf, tennis, and water polo in addition to football, baseball, and basketball. Division II schools include the University of Charleston, University of New Haven, St. Cloud State University in Minnesota, Truman State University in Missouri, and Kentucky State University.

Their student-athletes might be just as skilled and competitive and those in Division I, but schools in Division II have fewer financial resources to devote to their athletics programs. Division II offers partial scholarships for financial aid. Students can cover their tuition through a mixture of athletics scholarships, need-based grants, academic aid, and employment.

Division II is the only one that holds National Championships Festivals, Olympic-type events in which national championship competitions in several sports are held at one site over a period of days.

Division II schools:

  • Have a minimum of 10 sports
  • Offer five each for men and women or four men's and six women's two team sports each
  • Have enough games to fit each sport's requirements
  • Require students to maintain a 2.0 GPA and take at least 16 core courses to be eligible

NCAA Division III

Division III schools don't offer scholarships or financial aid to athletes for athletic participation, though athletes are still eligible for scholarships offered to any students who apply. Division III schools have at least five men's and five women's sports, including at least two team sports for each. There are 438 colleges in Division III. Schools in Division III include Skidmore College, Washington University at St. Louis, Tufts University, and California Institute of Technology (CalTech).