Understanding College Athletic Divisions

College football team warming up at practice

Four-year colleges that offer athletic programs fall into either the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) or the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). According to SportsRecruitingUSA.com, NCAA member schools are usually large public universities, while NAIA institutions are typically smaller colleges, the majority of which are private. Two-year community colleges with athletic programs fall under the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA).

NCAA Divisions

The NCAA is organized into three divisions, and there are separate athletic conferences within each division. The NCAA is focused on "safeguarding the well-being of student-athletes and equipping them with the skills to succeed on the playing field, in the classroom and throughout life." Hundreds of schools fall within each NCAA division. Member-schools' athletic teams play against other schools in the same division.

NCAA Division I

Schools within Division one are typically the largest schools (in terms of student enrollment) with the most visible and widely-known sports programs. Over 170,000 student-athletes participate in organized sports as part of the more than 6,000 teams associated with Division I schools. There are close to 350 schools in this division.

These schools generally devote the largest amount of funds to athletic programs and offer the most athletic scholarships. As of January 2015, Division I schools can award athletic scholarships that cover "the incidental costs of attending college" in addition to tuition, room and board. Incidental costs may include things like "transportation and miscellaneous personal expenses."

Football Subdivisions: Only for football, there are two subdivisions within Division I: the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and the Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). According to FootballGeography.com, what is now the FBS was once referred to as Division I-A and schools in this subdivision are considered the top tier in college football overall. The current FCS was previously known as Division I-AA. There are no subdivisions within Division I for any other sports.

Conferences: There are different conferences for the FBS and FCS subdivisions. Each school is part of a conference, though FBS and FCS schools may play against each other during the regular season. Many conferences have their own championship games.

FBS Conferences

Southeastern Conference (SEC)

Atlantic Coast Conference (ACC)

Big 10

Big 12

American Athletics


Mountain West


Conference USA

FBS Independents

Sun Belt

FCS Conferences

Mid-Eastern Athletic Conference (MEAC)

Southwestern Athletic Conference (SWAC)

Ivy League

Big South

Big Sky

Southern (SoCON)



Ohio Valley (OVC)

Patriot League


Missouri Valley

Great West

FCS Independents

Colonial Athletic Association (CAA)

Find Division I schools: Visit College Sports Scholarships to locate Division I schools by state and sport. A complete list of Division I schools organized by conference is available on ProCon.org.

NCAA Division II

There are nearly 300 schools in Division II, where about 120,000 student athletes are enrolled. Schools in this division focus on balancing academics and athletics, and also emphasize community service. Division II student-athletes have the opportunity to participate on sports teams that compete at a high level while also pursuing higher education.

They do not devote the same level of financial resources to athletics as division I schools. Division II schools are allowed to award a very limited number of "equivalencies," which are grants that cover full tuition, room and board, but that is not the norm. Instead, most Division II student-athletes who receive financial assistance based on athletics receive only partial awards.

Find Division II schools: Identify Division II schools by state and sport on the College Sports Scholarships website.

Conferences: Athletic conferences in NCAA Division II are:

NCAA Division II Conferences

California Collegiate Athletic Association

Carolinas-Virginia Athletic Conference

Central Atlantic Collegiate Conference

Central Intercollegiate Athletic Association

Great Lakes Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

Great Northwest Athletic Conference

Great Lakes Valley Conference

New York Collegiate Athletic Conference

Mid-America Intercollegiate Athletics Association

Northern Sun Intercollegiate Conference

Northeast Ten Conference

North Central Conference

Pennsylvania State Athletic Conference

Rocky Mountain Athletic Conference

Gulf South Conference

Heartland Conference

Southern Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

South Atlantic Conference

West Virginia Intercollegiate Athletic Conference

Sunshine State Conference

Pacific West Conference

Lone Star Conference

Peach Belt Conference

NCAA Division II Independents

NCAA Division III

With 444 member schools, Division III has more participating institutions than the other two divisions. There are more than 1700,00 student-athletes enrolled in this schools. Academics is the primary emphasis in this division. Division III schools are prohibited from awarding athletic scholarships under NCAA rules.

Conferences: There are 43 conferences within Division III, plus a grouping of of independent schools.

Finding Division III schools: Review the College Sports Scholarships website to find Division III schools by state and sport.


The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) is "is a governing body of small athletics programs that are dedicated to character-driven intercollegiate athletics." The NAIA is not divided into separate divisions. There are 248 member schools, most of which are relatively small private schools and more than 60,000 student-athletes participate in sports at these institutions. According to INtuition scholarships, the level of athletic competition in NAIA programs is similar to that of NCAA Division II schools. There are 23 conferences within the NAIA.

Finding NAIA Schools: Identify NAIA schools on the organization's website by state, conference, size of enrollment, whether they are public or private and by denomination (since many are faith-based schools).


The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) exists to "promote and foster junior college athletics." The organization's member institutions must be accredited two-year colleges. It is not unusual for student-athletes to play at an NJCAA school first then transfer to an NCAA. For example, Cam Newton and Nick Fairley both played at the junior college level before transferring to Auburn University, an NCAA Division I FBS school, and were subsequently both selected in the first round of the 2010 NFL draft.

Finding NJCAA Schools: A complete list of NJCAA schools is available on the organization's website.

Sports by Division

While individual schools within a division may not offer all sports, schools within each division may have a variety of teams. Sports within each division include:

Baseball X X X
Basketball X X X
Bowling X X X
Competitive Cheer & Dance X
Cross Country X X X
Fencing X
Field Hockey X
Football X X X
Golf X X X
Gymnastics X
Half Marathon X
Ice Hockey X X
Lacrosse X X X
Golf X
Rifle X
Rowing X
Skiing X
Soccer X X X
Softball X X
Swimming & Diving X X X
Tennis X X X
Track & Field (Indoor) X X X
Track & Field (Outdoor) X X X
Volleyball X X X
Water Polo X
Wrestling X X X

College Athletic Divisions

While understanding the college athletic divisions can seem overwhelming, their organization really is not that complex. Their structure is logical, with different organizations focused on specific types of schools.

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