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What is the difference between NCAA and NAIA colleges?

difference between ncaa and naia high school sports recruiting high school to college recruiting naia ncaa ncaa recruiting resources for recruiting truchampions sports recruiting Apr 07, 2021
NCAA and NAIA Colleges

Most student-athletes and parents misunderstand the difference between NAIA and NCAA colleges and there are several differences to note. They are both four-year universities that essentially provide the same thing giving hopeful student-athletes a chance to play sports in college. While both have national championships, there are interesting differences in their postseasons. 

Let’s discuss more…

What is an NCAA school?

NCAA stands for the National Collegiate Athletic Association. It is a membership-driven organization that governs intercollegiate athletics across three divisions (I, II, and III). NCAA has multiple divisions made up of numerous schools of varying sizes, including both public and private universities.

Currently, it is the oldest governing body that consists of 1,098 colleges and universities and 102 athletic conferences and growing.

The rules and requirements for Division I and Division II athletes must meet academic standards to participate in NCAA sports, which includes a 2.0 GPA and keep a full-time student status with the college. Because Division III schools do not offer athletic scholarships, these schools set their own admission and continuing eligibility requirements.

  • Division I colleges typically offer the largest scholarship budgets for student-athletes since they include large public schools.
  • Division II is a mixture of private and public schools is depending on the sport will have less money.
  • Division III is mostly smaller private schools and does not offer scholarships. Any type of scholarship money will be based on academics or other factors (private scholarships, etc..)

What is an NAIA school?

NAIA stands for the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. It is a college athletics association for small colleges and universities in North America. NAIA is still highly competitive on all accounts and comparable to NCAA DIII schools, with the top programs being comparable to NCAA DII. 

There are over 250 schools and 60,000 athletes competing at the NAIA level in college. Most of the colleges that are part of NAIA are smaller private colleges. Student-athletes and parents have also shared how accessible NAIA coaches are during their recruiting process, which is a huge plus! Even when you are at recruiting events, NAIA coaches can speak with you at any time, while NCAA coaches have specific times during the recruiting calendar that can speak with you.

NAIA can offer sports scholarships; however, all scholarships are equivalency scholarships, meaning a single scholarship can be divided up between multiple athletes and like other scholarships are not guaranteed year over year. 

How are scholarships handled?

Let’s be honest, college is expensive, especially if you only look at the investment that is needed. We understand that parents invest a lot of money into their student-athletes sport and expect that your athlete will be financially rewarded with a “full-ride” scholarship because of that. Given your athlete is talented enough to play in college, their academics will help them secure a solid scholarship for money not earned with the athletic scholarship.


  • NCAA Division 1 school can offer up to14 scholarships, but again, not every program offers all 14. NCAA Division II can offer 9.9 scholarships. Colleges stack academic scholarships on top of athlete scholarships so, costs are low for talented athletes.


  • NAIA is allowed a maximum of 12 scholarships for their program. They are also allowed to stack academic scholarships on top of athlete scholarships so, costs are low for talented athletes.

Remember that there are a lot of private scholarships that can fill the gaps that athletic scholarships don’t offer. Have your athlete work with their high school counselors to see if they can help find scholarships if needed. Very few athletes go on to play at the college level so, it is an honor to play in college. Your athlete will enjoy every moment furthering their education and playing the sport they love no matter what college they attend.