Can You Play College Sports?
Take the 4 minute quiz to see if you have what it takes for NCAA sports.
Written By: Charles Nobles
Head Women's Soccer Coach at McMurry University
Imagine you have emailed all of the college coaches you are interested in, been to numerous ID camps and showcases, and performed very well. Now it’s June 15 or later, going into your junior year. Your phone is ringing, your email dings, or your text message is buzzing. College coaches are contacting you and the offers are coming in! Now it’s time make the tough decision: which school do I choose? Is there a better level to play at? How do I know I’m not making a colossal mistake? Below is some information to help you choose your best fit. Notice what I said there: best fit. The secret to selecting the best college for you is to find the best fit based on your relationship with the coach and school, a school with your desired major, a school where you will be successful both on and off the field, and a school that feels right. Trust your gut, your heart, and your mind.
National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) are two different organizations that provide the same thing. Both consist of four-year universities who give young adults to opportunity to pursue their dream of playing college athletics and earning their undergraduate (sometimes graduate) degrees. Both organizations offer the chance to compete for conference titles and national championships. You can become an all-conference and all-American player in NCAA or NAIA. Both organizations have schools spread out across the entire United States, and provide the opportunity to compete against other schools, playing the sport you love, sometimes multiple sports. NCAA and NAIA do have differences you should be aware of. NCAA has multiple divisions made up of numerous schools of varying sizes, including both public and private universities. NAIA is made up of smaller private and public schools. While both have national championships, there are intriguing differences in their post seasons.
NCAA and NAIA offer automatic bids for conference champions, but they each give at-large bids as well. NCAA teams play one or two games per weekend (depending on division) all the way until the final four. The final four is hosted at a neutral location, but all prior games are played at a host site that is home to one of the competing teams. The first two rounds of the NAIA national tournament are played at a host site that is home to one of the competing teams. After the first weekend of two games, the final 16 teams travel to one location to play the final games. Both divisions have rules regarding playing season and recruitment. NCAA has different rules for each division, while all NAIA schools are governed by the same rules. The NAIA tends to have more foreign players due to fewer regulations.
At recruiting events, NAIA coaches can speak with you at any time, while NCAA coaches have specific times that can speak with you. The NAIA consists of 250 schools, however only 207 of them have women’s soccer programs and 204 of them have men’s programs. There is one division for all NAIA schools, made up of 21 conferences. While there are schools all over the continental United States, the majority of schools are along the West Coast, the central part of the United States (from Texas to Michigan), and the southeastern part of the US. The NCAA has three divisions. Division 1 is normally thought of as large public schools, but that is not always the case. Division 2 is a mixture of private and public schools, which are typically smaller than division 1 schools. Division 3 is mostly small private schools, though there are some large public schools as well. Division 1 has around 205 men’s programs and 333 women’s programs. Division 2 has around 214 men’s programs and 265 women’s programs. Division 3 has around 410 men’s programs and 440 women’s programs.
Once you have your scholarship offer, you will not be eligible to sign your letter of intent unless you meet your organization and division’s eligibility requirements. To play Division 1 you must take the 16 core courses in high school as required by the NCAA, and complete 10 of those before your seventh semester of high school. You must earn a 2.3 GPA in your core courses. Your GPA will determine what you need to make on your SAT or ACT. You must meet the admission requirements of the institution offering you the scholarship. Division 2 has similar standards, except they do not have the seventh semester rule and only require a 2.2 GPA. For division 3 eligibility, you must meet the admissions standards of the school you wish to attend. If you are accepted, you can play your first semester. NAIA you must meet two of the following three requirements: an 18 on the ACT or a 970 on the SAT, you must graduate high school with a grade point average of 2.0, and you must graduate in the top half of your graduating class. Here are the hard facts: college is expensive, especially if you only look at the monetary value of it. If you have played soccer all of your life and are expecting that to pay for your education, unfortunately, that likely will not be the case. That is not to say soccer cannot help you pay for school, but your academics are the most important factor in getting money for school. The next best way to help pay for school is federal aid and grants. Third is scholarships from your school or outside scholarships from other organizations. Finally, we get to what you have always dreamed of: that soccer scholarship. If you are playing division 3, there are no athletic scholarships. Any type of scholarship will be based on academics or other factors (religious, leadership etc.).
NAIA and NCAA Division 2 are very similar in that you can get scholarships, but the so-called “full ride” is not likely just from athletics. NAIA is allowed a maximum of 12 scholarships for their program, and division 2 is allowed a maximum of 9.9 scholarships. Most collegiate rosters range anywhere from 25-40 people, with some exceptions, and not every program gives the maximum number or scholarships. Some schools have very few athletic scholarships. It is important to note that athletic scholarships are year to year, and depending on your coach and school, can be cut or added to.
NCAA division 1 schools have the ability to offer up to14 scholarships, but again, not every program offers all 14. Once again, with roster sizes generally varying from 22 to 35, only the very best are getting everything covered, including textbooks, fees, tuition, room and board, purely based on athletics. I would argue that the most important aspect to understand in all of this is stacking! Each school, regardless of division, can stack but you must know the requirements. For division 3, you can stack academic scholarships with grants and aid, and outside or institutional scholarships. For the other divisions you can add athletic scholarships, but make sure to know the requirements, which vary from school to school. It is possible to get every aspect of your educations paid for at any level, but it requires some work, good fortune, and the right situation. Just like when you were researching colleges to email and what schools have your interests, you must also research the NCAA, the NAIA, different scholarships, and Federal aid. For the NCAA (division 1 and 2), before you are able to sign a national letter of intent and make your scholarships and roster spot official, you must go through their eligibility center. The more research you do, the more you know, and the better chance you have of finding scholarships, becoming eligible and fulfilling your dream.
Here are 5 very important websites:
NAIA main page: https://www.naia.org/landing/index
NAIA eligibility: https://play.mynaia.org/
NCAA main page: https://www.ncaa.com/
NCAA eligibility: https://web3.ncaa.org/ecwr3/
Federal Government Aid (fill out October 1 of Senior Year): https://studentaid.ed.gov/sa/fafsa
Talk to your high school or college counselor and ask them for a list of scholarships. Talk to your college’s admissions counselors or financial aid departments and ask them about extra scholarships. Sometimes your future college coach can point you in the right directions as well. The whole process can seem overwhelming, but in the end it will be worth it. You will be the elite of the elite, as so few kids go on to play college soccer. You will have the time of your life, earning your degree and playing the sport you love at a high level. You will have experiences you will remember for the rest of your life, and create bonds with teammates and coaches that will last a lifetime. NCAA and NAIA have their differences, but either way you go you won’t be wrong. I have seen D3 schools beat D1, NAIA schools beat D2, and any other mixture of results. Just remember, do your research, make great grades, contact coaches, and apply for scholarships. Visit different schools and make sure you find the right fit. Once you have done all of that, you will find the best fit for you and your family so you can live out your dream.