There are over 400,000 athletes in 1,200 colleges and universities across the United States, according to the governing body of college sports, the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) [link: www.ncaa.org]. If you’re a high school athlete, you are faced with the decision to play or not to play sports in college. For some, this choice is clear-cut. For others, however, it can be more complicated. There are divisions within college athletics and even more options beyond just the varsity level. We talked to collegietteTM athletes and consulted the NCAA to help break down your choices for college athletics.
Varsity Level: Divisions I, II & III
According to the NCAA Eligibility Center, each school chooses their division voluntarily based on student enrollment, financial estimates and fan support. Each division operates a little differently to give students the opportunity to find the best fit in academics and athletics.
Although it is uncommon, is it possible for a school to have sports in different divisions. For example, Johns Hopkins fields a Division I lacrosse program, while the rest of their sports compete in Division III. Most of the time, the size of the school and the facilities they have will prevent supporting separate divisions in different sports.
Division I is the most competitive of the collegiate athletic options. The majority of these schools are public universities, according to the
NCAA. Division I schools are appealing to many students because they are able to offer financial aid to athletes. Each Division I institution is required to offer a minimum amount of financial aid and scholarships to its recruits each year, while not exceeding the established cap. Scholarship awards vary by school and sport, but range from $500 to $30,000 per year, according to Athletic Scholarships. For example, there are 192 Division I schools that offer swimming scholarships to women, while only 77 Division I schools offer field hockey scholarships. In sports like these, coaches can divide the amount of scholarship money they have been allotted between as many recruits as they would like. Other sports, like volleyball, are referred to as “head-count” sports where a set amount of money (usually a full ride scholarship) is available for only a certain number of players. In Division I Volleyball, 12 scholarships are available per team.
We talked to Julia about her experience playing Division I Softball at Harvard and how she knew it was the right decision for her.
Julia’s Experience: Division I
Her Decision: Division I Softball at Harvard University
Her Background: Julia played both softball and volleyball in high school.
How She Decided: Julia says the recruiting process was very intense and included playing inshowcase tournaments, where college scouts could see her play firsthand, making a recruiting video, emailing and visiting coaches, and working hard to keep her skills sharp. The recruiting video, which compiled clips of Julia pitching, hitting and fielding, was sent to dozens of colleges where she hoped to play. “The end goal,” says Julia, “is that they are impressed with your skills through the video, then fly out to watch you play live and eventually to recruit you to play for them.” Julia says it was passion and a competitive edge that led her to Division I. “I think it was a gut feeling,” she says, “I knew it would be a large commitment to play at the D1 level, but it was something that I eventually decided would benefit my college experience and give me a chance to play a sport I love competitively.”
How She Adjusted to College Athletics: The time commitment to sports in college is much greater than in high school and extends beyond practices and games. In addition to intense workouts and practices, you really become immersed in athletics. “It has become a lifestyle rather than an extracurricular,” says Julia. As an athlete, she has become a part of a unique community at her school. “I feel connected with athletes on every team at my school through our shared commitment, competitive drive and school spirit.”
Her Advice: “Think about all the reasons you love the game. If you can’t imagine your life without these aspects, then definitely play! As far as what level to play at, think about your ideal level of commitment and consider other things you want to have time for and get involved in during your college years.”
The NCAA developed Division II programs to be a little more academically focused. These programs were designed to foster learning both in the classroom and on the field. Division II schools have a rigid restriction on the amount of financial aid they can award to athletes. According to the NCAA, most Division II student-athletes finance their tuition payments through a number of different means including employment, student loans, grants and scholarship funds. In Division II, the institution limits athletic budgets, just like the academic departments.
Unlike Division I, you can play for Division II and III teams without going through formal recruitment. This is called “walking on” to the team. To walk on, you must first contact the coach and declare your intentions to try out for the team. Most teams will hold try-outs. It isn’t easy to walk on to a team, but it is certainly possible and shows your determination and commitment to the game.
Allison had an interesting experience walking on to a Division II swim team at Ashland University.
Allison’s Experience: Division II
Her Decision: Division II Swimming at Ashland University
Her Background: Allison has been swimming competitively since she was six years old.
How She Decided: She made her decision to walk onto Ashland’s varsity swim team after spending time with the swimmers on a college visit. “They looked like a great team to be a part of. I wanted and needed the closeness and structure of a swim team,” says Allison. She says that in Division II, finding a team you fit in with is critical to a good experience: “In college, our team is like a family, always together and always there for each other.”
How She Adjusted to College Athletics: “Everything is a lot more intense now than it was in high school,” says Allison. Workouts are more challenging, more frequent and require a lot of mental stamina. “It’s all about pushing yourself as hard as you can to be the best you can,” Allison said.
Her Advice: “It’s not about the division, it’s about the team. Just try it out. If you are too unsure then club or intramural teams would be a good option. Walking on isn’t a bad thing, either. I am in love with swimming and would tell anyone that asked me to try it out and just see if they like it. You can always stop, you are not committed or obligated to keep going. It’s not quitting if you tried.”
Division III is the least competitive level of varsity college athletics. Nearly 70,000 women participate in this level at over 440 institutions across the country. According to the NCAA, 80% of Division III schools are private institutions. Division III schools cannot offer financial aid or scholarships based on athletic ability.
Chelsea’s Experience: Division III
Her Decision: Division III Field Hockey at Rhodes College
Her Background: In high school, Chelsea played field hockey, lacrosse and ice hockey.
How She Decided: Chelsea was already looking at smaller liberal arts colleges, so her academic interest fit perfectly into Division III. She began emailing coaches, who then asked for recruiting videos, stats and information. Chelsea says she could never see herself quitting field hockey because of the passion she has for the game. “The team, my coach, and the consistency of an athletic lifestyle made it impossible for me to even think of quitting,” Chelsea says.
How She Adjusted to College Athletics: As expected, college training was a step-up from her high school workouts. Another adjustment came with a greater focus on off-season conditioning. “In high school, [off-season conditioning] was a joke, but if you don’t work in the off-season in college, you will get burned,” Chelsea warns. She was relieved to find that even though the time commitment is more demanding, she still finds time for schoolwork.
Her Advice: “Be ready to make sacrifices, like not being able to go out on weekends, but also remember that being an athlete also has so many benefits: an immediate set of great friends, a coaching staff’s support and knowledge of the college, the opportunity to travel and see new places when you play games, a great resume booster, and freshman 15 prevention, to name a few!”
Compared to the hundreds of thousands of varsity college athletes, it is estimated that over two million college students participate in sports at the club level, according to TheNew York Times. Depending on the school, competition at the club level can vary. The major draw for club sports is that they function almost entirely outside of the university’s athletic department and are largely student-run. Club sports offer a balance between competition and fun, where you can commit to a team without sacrificing academics.
Maggie’s Experience: Club
Her Decision: Club Volleyball at Miami University
Her Background: Maggie played volleyball in high school and at the Junior Olympic level.
How She Decided: Beginning in her sophomore year of high school, Maggie was being scouted by various schools in the different divisions. By her junior year, she narrowed down her options to either a smaller Division I school or a Division III school. She visited colleges she was interested in for academics as well as athletics and talked to other athletes about how they balance school and sports. Ultimately, Maggie decided to choose a school for, well, school, and to pursue volleyball as a peripheral interest. “That decision wasn’t made without tears, and late night chats with friends and family, but afterwards I felt that I had made the right decision for me,” Maggie says.
How She Adjusted to College Athletics: Maggie says the competition was right on par with national tournaments she played in high school. Each year at Miami University, about 30-40 girls try out for 5-10 spots on the roster. Although practices and tournaments are similar to those Maggie played in high school, the girls run everything from refereeing to coaching. Another challenge Maggie faced was staying in shape because of the decreased practice time. “In college I only had practices twice a week. I did work out at the rec center occasionally, but I seemed to invest most of my time in various activities and my classes,” Maggie said.
Her Advice: “First and foremost, I firmly believe that girls must think about what they want, not what their parents, coaches, friends…etc. think. I felt pressured from every direction, and it wasn’t until my senior year that I was able to really focus on what I wanted instead of trying to please everyone else. Also, actually visiting schools, watching practices, and talking to players are the only real ways to familiarize yourself with a school and to know if playing at the varsity level is right for you.”
Intramural sports offer a lot of options to athletes. Most schools have intramural programs that are divided into levels from beginner to advanced. That way, anyone who signs up can participate. Most teams start with groups of friends who live in the same dorm or have classes together. Why not get together a beginner team and try playing a sport you haven’t before? I’ve heard of some crazy intramural sports like Underwater Hockey or even Quidditch! If you are still looking for competition, the more advanced leagues can provide that for you. At bigger schools, these advanced intramural leagues can be almost as competitive as the club teams.
Intramural sports are a great way to continue playing a sport you would rather not give up, meet new people or bond with friends in another club or sorority. Many schools have Greek-only leagues reserved for just fraternity and sorority teams to compete as well. Leagues are also divided into all-male, all-female or co-ed. I went the intramural route, so I can tell you a little about my experience.
My Experience: Intramural
My Decision: Intramural… well anything really! I’ve played ultimate frisbee, flag football, dodge ball and volleyball.
My Background: I was a varsity swimmer throughout high school and also enjoyed playing pick-up football, basketball and softball with my friends.
How I decided: During my sophomore year of high school, I looked at the options for swimming at the varsity level and found Division III would be a good fit. However, after a few college visits, I had to rule out small schools for academics reasons. Division III swimming had to go too. After that, my focus was on finding the right school and then seeing if swimming was still possible. When I decided on Miami University, a Division I school, I knew swimming and maintaining good grades would be difficult. Intramurals were the perfect way for me to maintain an active lifestyle and to try something new.
How I Adjusted: I found it difficult to keep up a regular workout schedule. It takes a lot of effort, once you’re on your own. Finding a friend with a similar schedule to go to the recreation center with you is a great way to stay motivated.
My Advice: Don’t be afraid of change. I thought it would be a lot harder for me to give up swimming than it was. It was a huge part of who I am and it was scary to picture my life without it. It turned out to be a great decision, though. I have had so many new opportunities since coming to school that I’m not sure I would have been able to take advantage of if I was still swimming.
Anyone interested in playing sports in college can find the right fit through the options available. The NCAA [link: www.ncaa.org] has a lot of information for high school athletes. Ultimately, it is up to you what feels right and works best with your lifestyle.
Terms to Know
Full ride scholarship: A scholarship that pays for tuition, room and board and textbooks in exchange for participation in a particular activity. Typically granted year by year.
Head-count sports: These sports have a certain number of scholarships to award to a pre-determined number of athletes.
Division I: The most competitive level of varsity athletics that can provide financial aid to its athletes. 335 schools total (66% public 34% private)
Division II: A division of varsity athletics focused on a balance between athletics and academics. Some financial aid is available. 302 schools total (52% public 48% private)
Division III: The largest and least competitive division of varsity athletics, which is unable to offer financial aid for athletic participation. 447 schools total (20% public 80% private)
Club: Student-run and coached leagues independent of the college or university that complete on the regional and national level.
Intramural: Recreational sports organized by the college or university with leagues of varying difficulty and a wide variety of sports.
NCAA: The National Collegiate Athletic Association is the governing body of college athletics and was founded to protect student-athletes and uphold their commitment to sportsmanship and excellence.
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