D1, D2, D3 and NAIA: Where do you fit?

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By Dylan Heye

The National Collegiate Athlete Association (NCAA) is composed of three divisions: D1, D2 and D3. Each division has separate soccer scholarship opportunities, different levels of commitment, and varying degrees of skill and competitiveness. If your looking to play soccer in college you need to know the difference in each division.

A D1 soccer colleges are of the highest level in collegiate soccer. This division is where college players are transformed into professional level athletes. D1 schools, to get the best players, offer the highest paying scholarships. They are, therefore, most competitive and are reserved for the most skilled. For menʼs soccer, the D1 soccer schools are typically smaller because most of the larger schoolʼs scholarships are given to football and basketball players. Examples include Dartmouth University and Drexel University. For women, however, most of the larger schools, such as Texas A&M and Ohio University, are D1 schools due to the equalization of male-given funds. The pros to such a competitive atmosphere are obvious: better soccer, scholarships, more professional recognition and the possibility of becoming professional. Due to the rigors of such standards that D1 schools carry, there will be less free time than D2, D3, and NAIA soccer programs with less time to focus on majors. This does not mean that student athletes at this level will have no social or educational life, but that the schedule will be a little more intense. Also, a player does not necessarily have to be a professional player at the end of their four years, they could choose to follow their major as well.

Division 2 soccer programs are a little less intense than D1 schools in that they have shorter practices or less per week. They will travel less distance than the D1 schools to play opponents and sometimes even play fewer games per season. However, donʼt let this obstruct your view of the D2 program. It is still very respected and should be taken just as seriously as D1. Most D2 schools allow for scholarship opportunities, so the competitiveness to get those endowments still exists. Just because D2 is less than D1 does not mean they are any less skillful. For example, a good D2 team could possibly beat a low ranked D1 team. With these schedules, a player will have a little more free time, other than soccer, to plan out his/her day. However, the major focus is still on becoming a great soccer player.

D3 soccer programs are the ʻfunʼ soccer programs of the NCAA. They are most relaxed in that incoming athletes do not need to be approved by the NCAA. Soccer Scholarships are not available for D3 soccer schools, but financial aid can be obtained through the soccer team. These programs are great because they allow for fun, competitive soccer while allowing for extra time to focus on majors and student life within the campus. Obviously, D3 soccer schedules will be less intense than the previous two programs and will not simply cut you from the team just because of a few poorly played games.


National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) is completely separate from the NCAA. It is typically established in smaller, less wealthy schools. The average competition level is between D2 and D3 schools, so the schedules will still be relaxed, but remain competitive. Unlike the NCAA divisions (with exception of D3), there is no need to be approved as a player for the NAIA and there are less restrictions between player and coach relations and specifications. A student-athlete can receive a scholarship from a NAIA school but it depends on which scholarships the school is able to fund.

In short, Division 1 soccer teams will contain the highest caliber athletes, have a little more money to offer the highest soccer scholarships, but will have a tighter, more intense practice and game schedule. Division 2 soccer schools are still very competitive, have fewer scholarships than D1, and have a little more of a relaxed schedule. Division 3 programs are for players looking to continue their soccer career but are not looking to go professional after college. They offer some financial aid and will typically have the least competitive schedules in the NCAA. And lastly, the NAIA contains the smaller, less wealthy schools. They will offer limited scholarships and maintain a simpler schedule than D2 schools, while remaining competitive in their own brackets. So the real question is: what kind of player are you?

1 comment for this entry:
  • Collegiate Soccer Player

    What is said about Division 3 schools is not true in certain aspects. As somebody who plays women’s soccer for a division 3 team, we made the NCAA tournament and having played some of the top ranked teams in the nation for the division, the competition is unbelievable, and you can tell they regularly play teams not just for “fun” like you mentioned, and some of those schools could easily compete with division 1 schools. Ex: Johns Hopkins, Emory etc. In fact some of those teams are so competitive during preseason they did tournaments abroad, like certain division 2 schools do. Also, NCAA does monitor some aspects of the athlete. If your GPA is under 2.0 you will not be allowed to play. We all had to complete the clearinghouse regardless.