What’s the difference between DI, DII, and DIII?
SUMMER SCHOOL Q&A
⚡ The Power Five ain’t everything
Q: What’s the difference between DI, DII, and DIII?
A: In general, the most elite competition and the deepest pockets can be found at DI schools, scaling down through DII and DIII. But the biggest difference lies in the DII and DIII divide: Unlike in DI and DII, DIII athletes aren’t eligible for athletic scholarships. That means they’re playing purely out of love of the game (and possibly NIL money, of course).
- Some athletes describe differences in intensity, too. For example, a DI sport commitment can function like a full-time job, with more pressure and offseason commitments. But others contest this, saying DII and DIII athletes work just as hard.
Go deeper: DI conference realignment has likewise spurred a division-jumping trend, even though it involves a lengthy application process, and schools who take the leap often face temporary postseason restrictions, too.
- While schools usually must level up one tier at a time, it’s not unheard of for an institution to vault from DIII to DI — the University of St. Thomas did it in 2020. Onward and upward!
Q: What is the NAIA?
A: The NCAA isn’t the only college sports governing body on the block. Along with five junior college athletic associations, the U.S. has one more four-year org: the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), which has 241 member schools across two divisions (I and II) and 21 conferences, sponsoring 28 sports (plus one “emerging” and two “invitational” sports).
- NAIA schools are generally very small and less competitive than NCAA schools, although some are comparable in talent to NCAA DIII programs. One big difference? NAIA schools can offer athletic scholarships.
Go deeper: The NAIA began as the National Association of Intercollegiate Basketball (NAIB), a men’s basketball–only conference established by the sport’s creator, James Naismith, in 1937. Most impressively, it’s owned the progressive dub over the NCAA for decades by leading the charge on racial integration, the inclusion of HBCUs, and the establishment of women’s sports.