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naia or ncaa: what's the difference?

picking the right NAIA or NCAA college

If you’ve been awake for any part of your high school athletic career, you probably know the NCAA fairly well (or, at least you’ve heard of it). But what do you know about the NAIA? This smaller association works like the NCAA to promote the well-being of student-athletes at almost 300 universities and colleges around the country, but they aren’t twins: learn about the differences below so you can confidently choose whether the NAIA or NCAA is right for you.

Are you eligible?

This not-so-obvious step is often forgotten until it's too late: don't make that mistake! Both institutions require you to register and maintain eligibility via test scores, transcripts, and more, or else you might not find your way onto the campus of your dreams after all. The NAIA has higher academic requirements, which you can learn about here, or go straight to their EC for helpful videos and details. The NCAA varies depending on division and offers a sliding scale, so find your standing on their site and register today.

How good are you at balancing acts?

If you are a type-A, ultra-organized, planner-packed-to-the-gills-with-activities kind of student, then NCAA DI programs will be a total joyride for you. The hectic nature of constant travel to away games, full course load, and a normal social life are stimulating for many athletes who choose this path, but be honest: does the very thought make you dizzy? If so, consider an NAIA or NCAA DII or DIII school instead. You’ll have the freedom to focus on all parts of your college life in a more laid-back set up, which may be exactly what you’re looking for.

Can you pay those bills, bills, bills?

If you’re one of the many non-Hilton billionaires out there, the money question is likely to be a significant influence on your upcoming choice. Most of the cash hangs out at the top, with NCAA DI schools handing out the most in athletic-based scholarships, DII schools giving a healthy mix, and DIII colleges not allowed at all (although many still lend a hand in other ways). 90% of NAIA schools offer scholarships and athletes receive an average of seven-thousand dollars in financial assistance. The draw of NCAA DI competition is impressive, but the reality is that many athletes aren’t quite playing at that level and can obtain significant financial aid from other divisions.

A little chit, a little chat

For NCAA DI and DII, the restrictions vary by sport and are a wee bit complex, with rules on phone calls, emails, and campus visits dictating your relationship with new coaches. Fun fact: with their smaller budgets, DIII coaches can’t do much on-the-road recruiting, so reaching out to them early gives you a huge advantage. They also don’t have the same restrictions (or almost any, read more here) on communicating with high school athletes, so you’ll have a much easier time building that relationship. The same goes for NAIA colleges: the recruitment rules aren’t as strict when it comes chatting up your future coach, so you'll have ample opportunities to create a meaningful relationship.

The more the merrier?

When I was a youngin’, you couldn’t have paid me to attend a small college. My 25,000-student campus was a dream, with lots and lots of space, plenty of classes to choose from, and incredible diversity. But the throngs of students also meant large class sizes and less attention from professors and department counselors. It was entirely up to the students to drive their progress, connections, and development, which proved difficult for many. A smaller campus provides more one-on-one encouragement and creates an environment of constant and unending support (the alumni networks at small schools are impressive). Most big schools are housed under the NCAA divisions, with the NAIA keeping their ranks filled with mainly small campuses. Sit down with yourself and figure out what kind of community you want to participate in, then check out some options with the NAIA and NCAA.

Hankering for more on the NAIA or NCAA college process? Check out more articles from our resource center and don't forget to register at the NAIA Eligibility Center and the NCAA Eligibility Center today

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