There are several different college athletic associations that will be important to understand as you research which programs you may want to explore at the next level.
NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association)
The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is an organization that governs and regulates athletes from over 1,000 institutions. The NCAA has three divisions — Division I, II, and III. Each institution under the NCAA falls into one of these divisions, which have unique rules about scholarships and recruiting.
DI, DII, and DIII athletics are different, but each provides student-athletes opportunities to learn, compete, and ultimately succeed. Division I schools usually have the largest athletic budgets and the most school spirit, which means more demand on the athletes' time. Division II schools have smaller athletic budgets but still compete at a very high level — fostering a great balance between academics and athletics. Of the three divisions, Division III schools have the smallest athletic budgets and are less demanding on athletes while still allowing them opportunities to compete.
NCAA Division I
Division I schools generally have the biggest student bodies, manage the largest athletics budgets, and offer the most generous number of scholarships among the three NCAA divisions. Schools that are members of Division I commit to maintaining a high academic standard for athletes and a wide range of opportunities for athletics participation.
Division I institutions typically have larger budgets for athletic scholarships and can offer more than other divisions. There are academic requirements for students who receive athletic financial aid as well.
NCAA Division I institutions are further subdivided into the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS) and Football Championship Subdivision (FCS). The main difference between these two is postseason play.
FBS teams play in bowl games which determine which four institutions will play in the College Football Playoff. The FBS can also offer more full scholarships to athletes. These institutions also have a minimum attendance requirement at their home games, which must be met once in a two-year rolling period.
Unlike FBS teams, FCS teams play an NCAA-sanctioned bracket tournament that ends with the NCAA Division I Football Championship. FCS institutions are still allowed to give full scholarships, but more often than not, they give athletes partial scholarships. These institutions also do not have any attendance requirements for home games.
To get recruited to play Division I sports, there is a recruiting calendar that gives a timeline for the recruiting process. Division I sports have the most detailed calendars, so staying on top of important dates and times is crucial.
NCAA Division II
Division II is a collection of more than 300 NCAA colleges and universities that provide thousands of student-athletes the opportunity to compete at a high level of scholarship athletics while excelling in the classroom and fully engaging in the broader campus experience. This balance, in which athletes are recognized for their academic success, athletics contributions and campus/community involvement, is at the heart of the Division II philosophy.
While most Division II institutions offer full scholarships for athletes, most are partial athletic scholarships. They have the same academic eligibility requirements as Division I schools, and athletes can apply through the NCAA Eligibility Center.
Division II sports also have recruiting calendars that athletes must follow. Most Division II calendars are less intensive than Division I calendars, but athletes still must keep track of dates and times.
NCAA Division III
Division III is the largest division regarding the number of institutions and athletic participants in the NCAA. Division III is unique in not awarding athletic scholarships due to its unwavering commitment to the academic success of every student-athlete. The opportunity to play sports in college is a privilege, but we often forget taking part in collegiate athletics is also a choice. When high school seniors decide to be Division III student-athletes, their choice illustrates their passion for the sport and pursuit of an education.
Division III institutions do not offer athletic scholarships but can still provide athletes with financial aid packages. Additionally, the NCAA has no academic requirements for enrolling in these institutions.
Division III sports do not have recruiting calendars. Athletes looking to play in this division can be contacted and recruited year-round.
NAIA (National Association of Intercollegiate Association)
The NAIA is the intercollegiate athletic association with a broader focus — developing athletes to their full potential and helping them meet their goals. The NAIA has no divisions, but sports are divided by conferences. While it's a smaller association, it offers a good balance for student-athletes. Most experts compare playing in the NAIA to playing at the NCAA Division II and III levels because of the school size and scholarship opportunities (mostly partial scholarships, some full-rides). It's important to remember that just because it's a smaller association does not mean your athletic career will not be valued — Dennis Rodman and Scotty Pippen attended NAIA schools!
NJCAA (National Junior College Athletic Association)
The NJCAA is the governing association of community, state, and junior college athletics. Joining an institution in the NJCAA is an excellent way for athletes to improve their skills, gain collegiate playing experience, and work on their academics. Compared to NAIA and NCAA conferences, junior college conferences are much smaller, and the programs are only two years long — offering athletes the ability to study and play for two years before transferring to a four-year program.
The NJCAA is split up into three divisions, like the NCAA, and each program offers an intermediate step for athletes who wish to further develop their skills before going into a 4-year program. These 2-year programs offer scholarships to Division I and II for athletic purposes and Division III on an academic basis only.
Other Junior College Athletic Associations
There are multiple other junior college athletic associations besides the NJCAA, which is the largest. If you're interested in taking the JUCO route in your athletic journey, it's recommended that you research more about each of the other athletic associations listed below:
Northwest Athletic Conference (NWAC)
California Community College Athletic Association (CCCAA)
United States Collegiate Athletic Association (USCAA)
National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA)