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College Sports: How They Work in America

Updated: Sep 20, 2023

by Sara Bittner

Collegiate Basketball
University of Northern Iowa Basketball Court

One of the most unique points of the American college and university system is the prevalence of sports on and around campus. When we talk about college sports, most people will think of stadiums filled with fans cheering on world class athletes. While universities competing in the Big East, Big 10 or ACC and similar conferences will most certainly have that experience, it is only the tip of the iceberg of the college sports experience.

NCAA: Understanding the Backbone of College Athletics

The NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA are the governing bodies of college varsity sports. This means that one of the aforementioned organizations oversees and regulates athletic practice and competition at over 1900 colleges and universities in the US. They have regulations to protect the athletes (including limits on mandatory training hours and banning competition and mandatory practice during final exam periods), and to ensure fair play among participating institutions.

D1, D2, and D3 Explained

The NCAA is the most popular and divides the competition into three divisions, very creatively called Division I, Division II, and Division III, or more often known as D1, D2, and D3. D1 programs generally have bigger budgets and are permitted to offer more scholarship money than D2 programs (and even though the Ivy League is D1, they do not award athletic scholarships). D1 programs also have the most stringent academic requirements for athletic eligibility, requiring a minimum 2.3 GPA in addition to a minimum ACT/SAT score. D2 requirements are slightly less strict, requiring a minimum 2.0 GPA and a sliding scale of ACT/SAT scores, while still being permitted to award some athletic scholarships. As D3 universities do not offer athletic scholarships, the NCAA does not regulate academic standards for these athletes. Although they do not receive athletic scholarships, 75% of D3 athletes receive merit scholarships or need-based grants.

Even after dividing participating universities into three divisions, each division still has hundreds of participants, so how do they organize competition fairly? Each division is divided into conferences, approximately ten universities that regularly compete against each other in all sports. Universities in these conferences typically have similar budgets for athletics, ensuring a relatively even playing field for in-conference competition.

Also worth noting, scholarships at D1 and D2 universities can only be awarded for NCAA-sponsored sports. Currently, this does not include men’s field hockey, sailing, or men’s rowing. These sports may exist at some universities as club sports, but funding will be much more limited. Another remarkable exception to this rule is the up and coming world of Esports.

NAIA and NJCAA: Alternative Pathways to College Sports Success

2 female softball players give a high five
College sports can also be played in other governing bodies

The NAIA sponsors 14 varsity sports and often the schools are smaller, have smaller budgets, and limit the amount of travel their students undertake resulting in a well-balanced student-athlete lifestyle. At some NAIA schools, the competition is just as competitive as schools in NCAA D1 and D2. A key feature of the NAIA is its lack of recruiting restrictions, which means student-athletes and coaches can converse as much as they want throughout the recruiting process, which helps ensure the best fit.

The NJCAA is a viable option for many students and is often recommended by NCAA or NAIA coaches in sports such as Baseball, Basketball, or Football. NJCAA schools are junior colleges (also known as community colleges), where student athletes can build their athletic ability, focus on GPA strengthening, or develop socially and emotionally before heading off to a four-year program. The NJCAA has the least restrictions of any governing body but still aims to protect its student-athletes while offering a memorable athletic experience.

When determining what level a student should compete at, LAUNCH encourages students to explore their academic and athletic ambitions and aim for a program and school with integrity, ambition, and resources to help them #dreamlaunchsoar.


Playing collegiate volleyball
Founder Laurenn Hensel setting a volleyball

Did you know

That both LAUNCH founders were collegiate athletes? LAUNCH offers personalized college recruiting guidance as well. We're happy to chat and answer your questions!


College Counselor, Sara Bittner

Sara Bittner is a co-founder of LAUNCH education consultants as well as a guidance and community coach. She specializes in American east-coast schools, student-athletes, expat and third culture families, and application essays. In her free time, she enjoys reading, biking, and fitness. She currently resides in the Netherlands with her husband and two children.

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