D1 vs D3: 4 reasons why smaller colleges may be a good choice for student-athletes

Dr. Michael Nietzel
Dr. Michael Nietzel

Dr. Michael Nietzel is a Senior Educational Policy Advisor to the Missouri Governor. He was appointed President of Missouri State University in 2005. He has also worked as the Director of Clinical Psychology at the University of Kentucky, where he was Chair of the Psychology Department, Dean of the Graduate School, and Provost.

D1 vs D3: 4 reasons why smaller colleges may be a good choice for student-athletes

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Student-athletes represent a larger portion of the student body at smaller (NAIA and Division III) colleges.

Despite not offering athletic scholarships, 75% of Division III student-athletes receive some type of financial aid.

Student-athletes are highly desirable applicants at many small colleges due to their potential contributions to enrollment, finances, brand-building, and academic success.

When most people think about intercollegiate athletics, the first thing that usually comes to mind is what the late, great sportswriter Frank Deford called “big-time sports”, the brand of athletic competition played at the nation’s powerhouse schools.

Think the University of Alabama and the Georgia Bulldogs in football. The universities of Kentucky, Kansas, and Duke in basketball. Athletic department budgets in excess of $200 million at the University of Texas and Ohio State University.

While it’s true that the 350 or so schools competing in the National Intercollegiate Athletics Association (NCAA) Division I grab most of the headlines, athletics also plays an important role at hundreds of small schools that are members of either NCAA Division II  (about 300 schools) or Division III (more than 440 schools). Another approximately 250 small colleges are members of the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which conducts national championships in 28 different sports and generally spends less on their athletic programs than peer schools that are members of the NCAA.

What does D1, D2, D3 mean in sports?

In U.S. college sports, D1, D2, and D3 refer to divisions established by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA):

  • Division I (D1): Large schools, high competition level, often full athletic scholarships.
  • Division II (D2): Smaller schools, balance of academics and athletics, fewer scholarships.
  • Division III (D3): Smaller/private schools, no athletic scholarships, focus on overall college experience.

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In fact, the case could be made that intercollegiate athletics is more important to student enrollment, institutional finances, and student-body composition at small colleges than it is at large institutions, despite the fact that the larger institutions spend – and lose – far more money supporting their athletics teams than NCAA Division III colleges, which are prohibited from offering financial aid that’s tied directly to a student participating in intercollegiate athletics.

The effect of intercollegiate athletics on the racial composition of an institution’s study body is also of interest, particularly in light of the recent Supreme Court decision that found race-conscious admissions to be unconstitutional. Might the recruitment of athletes be a way to promote greater student diversity? As we shall see, that’s a complicated issue, but currently the majority of intercollegiate athletes are white, a pattern that is particularly pronounced at small colleges.

From a student point of view, participation in intercollegiate athletics carries a number of advantages, especially at small colleges.

First, student-athletes are given favorable consideration for admission at many selective colleges that are members of Division III. At some schools, coaches can put in for a limited number of “tips”, where preference is given to admitting a recruited athlete. Other schools set aside a certain number of slots for athletes, who still are expected to meet at least minimum admission standards. And as we illustrate below, even though Division III athletes don’t receive athletic grants-in-aid, most of them receive considerable financial aid from the schools they attend.

Here are 4 examples, drawn from data collected by the NCAA and other sources, that illustrate the surprisingly important role that college sports play at smaller institutions.

1. The number of student-athletes at Division III colleges has increased more than at Division I colleges.

The number of student-athletes competing in NCAA championship sports in 2021-22 exceeded 520,000, an all-time high, according to the latest data in the NCAA Sports Sponsorship and Participation Rates Report. But behind those totals is an interesting pattern that shows the growing importance of athletics at smaller schools.

In 1981-82, 75,491 men and 31,686 women competed in Division I intercollegiate athletics. Forty years later, in 2021-22, the comparable numbers were 102,257 men and 89,846 women, representing increases of 35% and 184% respectively, a reflection of the importance of Title IX requirements stipulating that institutions offer equal opportunities for participation in intercollegiate athletics.

But then consider the change rates for Division III. In 1981-82, 58,634 men competed in intercollegiate athletics, but that number increased by 99% to 119,656 in 2021-22. In 1981-1982, 26,887 women competed in Division III sports, but by 2021-22 that number had increased to 85,022, a huge 216% jump.

The increases are due to larger roster sizes per sport, as well as an increase in the number of teams supported by the institutions. In 1981-82, NCAA Division I schools sponsored an average of 17.5 teams, and Division III institutions averaged 14.8 teams. By 2021-22, that difference had evaporated, with Division I institutions averaging 19 teams, and Division III schools averaging 19.1 teams.

Bottom line

While Division I student-athletes outnumbered Division III student-athletes by more than 22,000 in 1981-82, the numbers were reversed by 2021-22, when Division III student-athletes outnumbered those in Division I by more than 12,000.

2. Student-athletes comprise a much larger percentage of the student body at smaller schools.

Not only do Division III student-athletes outnumber their Division I peers, they represent a much larger proportion of the undergraduate student body. About 1 in 4 students at a Division III school compete in intercollegiate athletics, compared to less than 5% at Division I institutions.

This pattern is illustrated by a few comparisons of liberal arts colleges to large athletic powerhouses. According to a recent Washington Post analysis, Williams College, with an undergraduate population of about 2,000 undergraduate students, enrolled 737 student-athletes in 2019, while the University of Georgia, with 30,000 undergraduates, enrolled 520.

Or compare Bowdoin College, with 653 student-athletes out of approximately 2,000 undergraduates, to a perennial athletic leader like the University of Florida, which had 530 student-athletes out of more than 30,000 undergraduates.

Bottom line

Despite having fewer students, Division III schools have a larger percentage of student-athletes compared to Division I institutions.

3. Most student-athletes receive financial aid at Division III schools.

Although Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships per se, the vast majority of their intercollegiate athletes – 75% according to the NCAA – receive some sort of financial aid from their institutions, either in the form of need-based or so-called merit scholarships. These financial awards are a form of tuition discount, which generally average more than $10,000 per year.

Small colleges offer this aid because the athletes they enroll still pay a significant amount in tuition and room and board, even after their scholarship aid. For example, the NAIA estimates that its member schools realize an average of $10,100 in net revenue per student-athlete. With relatively small budgets for their athletic departments, small colleges see enrolling a large number of intercollegiate athletes as a money maker.

Bottom line

Though Division III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, 75% of their athletes receive some financial aid, averaging over $10,000 annually.

4. Student-athletes enjoy academic success

Academically, student-athletes generally perform well, regardless of the NCAA division in which they compete. According to the NCAA, the Federal 6-year graduation rates for student athletes are 69% (Division I), 60% (Division II), and 70% (Division III). For students in general at schools in each of the divisions, the corresponding graduation rates were 69%, 52%, and 67%. So in each case, the graduation rate for student athletes was either equal to or better than the rates for students at the same schools who did not compete in athletics.

Division I schools spend substantial amounts of money offering a menu of special academic supports to their student-athletics, including advisors, tutors, and other academic assistance. These resources are less likely to be available at Division III institutions, which seek to provide a balance between academics and athletics for their student-athletes. In general, Division III student-athletes are more likely to participate in other co-curricular activities on campus than are their Division I peers, who experience more travel, longer practice sessions, and greater demand associated with their sport.

About a quarter of Division III student-athletes study abroad during their collegiate career; almost half have a job and work a median of 8 hours per week; and approximately three-quarters do an internship or externship. Division III student-athletes also report greater involvement in volunteering and are more likely to state that they see themselves as part of the campus community compared to the general student body.

Bottom line

Student-athletes excel academically across NCAA divisions, with graduation rates equal to or surpassing those of non-athletes.

Diversity matters: the majority of Division III student-athletes are white

Despite common public assumptions, Division III student-athletes are less racially diverse than the general undergraduate population.

According to NCAA data, 72% of Division III student athletes are white; 10% are Black; 7% are Hispanic/Latino; 4% identify as 2 or more races; 3% are Asian; 1% are internationals, and the remainder are unknown or other races.

How do those percentages compare to undergraduates overall? Of the 15.4 million undergraduate students enrolled nationwide in fall 2021, 51% were white; 21% were Hispanic, 12.3% were Black; 7.1% were Asian; and the remainder were 2 or more races, internationals, or some other identification.

In brief, Division III student-athletes are more likely to be white than undergraduates in general, are about equally likely to be Black, and they are much less likely to be Hispanic/Latino than their peers who are not competing in athletics.

Final thoughts

For students, here’s the key takeaway. If you’re an athlete and want to continue to compete in college, you are likely to be a very desirable applicant at many small colleges. You keep their enrollment numbers up, you contribute to their financial bottom line, you help build their brand, and you are likely to be academically successful. Those are some of the reasons why student-athletes enjoy a distinct advantage when it comes to being admitted to college, even at some of the most selective institutions in the nation.

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