College Sports: Choosing between D1, D2, and D3

D1 soccer players competing in a soccer game outdoors. Image by Top Tier Lessons.
D1 soccer players competing in a soccer game outdoors. Image by Top Tier Lessons.


As athletes approach high school, they might want to start thinking about the opportunity of playing a collegiate level sport. The NCAA offers three levels of competition: Division 1, Division 2, and Division 3. Each division has its unique set of characteristics, ranging from the intensity of athletic competition and training requirements to the size of universities and availability of scholarships. Understanding these differences will ultimately empower prospective student-athletes to make informed decisions concerning their athletic and academic careers!


Starting off, Division 1 (D1) is the most competitive and intense level of collegiate athletics within the NCAA divisions. Many athletes who choose D1 aspire to become professionals and make a full time career out of their sport. D1 Athletes usually spend upwards of 20-30 hours a week practicing and training for their sport. On average, practice and training will be around 6 hours per day, proving to be time consuming and rigorous. D1 schools usually provide athletes with top-notch facilities, experienced coaching staff, and increased media coverage as companies such as ESPN or Big10 Network will cover matches or games. Additionally, athletes often have to miss classes and other university events to travel and attend games or tournaments. It is usually the most difficult to manage academics in D1 across all NCAA divisions. As far as the universities themselves, D1 schools usually have the biggest undergrad enrollment, averaging at 20,000-50,000 students, and offer athletic scholarships. Lastly, D1 is an ideal choice if one has the dedication and ability to manage the rigorous schedules and aims to compete at the most elite level.


Division 2 is a great medium for athletes that want to compete at a high level whilst keeping more control over managing academics. Although D2 allows athletes to play at a high level, it is not as high of a level as D1. Generally, D2 athletes are required to commit to practice and training sessions for around 15-20 hours per week. Practice and training schedules are still very rigorous and demanding, but less than that of D1. D2 universities tend to be smaller to medium sized schools with the undergrad enrollment size averaging 5000-15,000 students. D2 schools also offer athletic scholarships.


Division 3 is the lowest level of collegiate athletics. This is a great choice for athletes who still want to play a high level of college sports and have a well rounded college experience. This does not mean that practice or training is optional, it simply means that D3 sports are less demanding and intense as D1 or D2. Athletes choose D3 because they are able to have more time to focus on academics and other commitments throughout college. Additionally, D3 schools tend to be smaller with the average undergrad enrollment size being 3000 students. Furthermore, D3 schools tend to be more affordable than D1 or D2. While D3 universities do not offer athletic scholarships, they often provide more academic and merit-based financial aid. Ultimately, there is less pressure and stress involved in D3 sports in comparison to D1 or D2, allowing athletes to still have a well rounded college experience.

Other Athletic Pathways

Even if one decides the NCAA division sports aren’t right for them, they still have options. Many schools around the country have club sanctioned sports. This means that an athlete can still compete for their school, but there is less commitment required. Depending on the school, there will be tryouts held for club sports. Many athletes like to think of it as a continuation of playing a varsity sport in high school, as many people who played varsity sports usually join club. In fact, many athletes that could have played collegiate level sports end up playing club sports in college, which ultimately ensures a high level of competition. Overall, the college decision making process is more complicated and broader than choosing what program to join. D1, D2, and D3 schools have a variety of advantages and disadvantages that are beyond just sports. For many, however, choosing to play college sports is one of the most important college decisions, so weighing all the options and choosing wisely is pivotal.
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