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Education • Dedication • Life

NAIA v NCAA: What’s the difference?

Posted by Christina Martin on Jan 22, 2015 2:57:00 PM

Does size really matter?

 For student-athletes navigating the maze of college options, school size matters a lot more than just how big your classes are and how many students are on campus.  School size also typically determines which athletic division a school falls in – which will directly impact the type of athletic experience you could have at that school.


And that’s why every student-athlete ought to know the difference between the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) and the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) before deciding which school they would like to attend. NCAA schools often fall on the larger end of the spectrum, at least when it comes to Division I athletics.  NCAA Division II and III and NAIA colleges and universities generally have much smaller student bodies.

 When you think of college athletics, often it’s the NCAA (Div I, Div II etc.) that comes to mind.  The NCAA is comprised of approximately 460,000 student-athletes at more than 1,200 schools, conferences and affiliate organizations, all vying to compete in one of 89 championship events under the NCAA umbrella. And as any fan of “March Madness” or college bowl games knows, Div I schools are the top-tier, most competitive schools (Hello Notre Dame, Penn State, Georgia, Kentucky, UNC, Harvard and BU). Larger schools typically have D-I athletics teams – but not always.  School size is not actually an end-all factor in determining the Division, more often it’s the size of the school’s athletic budget to attract top athletes, which explains why larger schools with bigger budgets often end up in the top division).

The NAIA is a much smaller association of schools than the NCAA.  In fact, if you’re from the East coast, it’s likely you’ve never even heard of it. But the NAIA is a formidable association, including more than 260 colleges and universities and representing 60,000 student-athletes. The NAIA also oversees 23 national championships in 13 different sports. And while the overall level of competition isn’t what you would find at D-I schools from which the majority of pro athletes hail, NAIA sports are generally considered to be on par with NCAA Division II schools.


It’s true, NAIA schools don’t sell as many sweatshirts and hats as NCAA affiliates... 

...nor do they get as much ESPN or major sports network love (though in recent years ESPN3 televises some NAIA basketball championship games. But, that doesn’t mean NAIA schools don’t recruit and produce some serious ballers, as NBA Hall of Famers Dennis Rodman and Scottie Should Pippen of the Jordan-era Chicago Bulls can attest.

 Rodman attended South East Oklahoma State where he was a 3-time NAIA All American and led the NAIA in rebounding in 1984/85 and 1985/86 seasons before he was selected as the 3rd pick in the 1986 NBA draft by the Detroit Pistons.

 Pippen, the “Robin” to Michael Jordan’s “Batman,” played for Central Arkansas. He was selected as the 5th overall pick by the Seattle Super Sonics in the 1987 NBA draft and was traded to the Bulls later that night.

 So, let the record show, being a Division I big shot is no guarantee for professional success. The list of Division I athletes who went on to become huge, over-hyped, busts as pros, is long (cough – Tim Tebow – cough). Check out the Bleacher Report’s Top 50 Most Spectacular Busts in Sports History.

OK, now that you know the difference between the NCAA and NAIA...

(and the fact that not every D-I student athlete goes on fame and riches), here’s a quick reality check. 

 Just about everyone who has played competitive sports has dreamed of playing in the pros one day. But what are the odds?

 In 2012, an NCAA survey calculated the odds making it from college to the pros in six major sports: baseball, football, basketball, women's basketball, hockey and soccer. In all sports, except baseball, the chances of a college student-athlete becoming a pro athlete are less than 2 percentThe chances a college baseball player will make it to “The Show” are 11.6 percent.

 That’s not to discourage student-athletes from pursuing their dreams. But it does provide much needed perspective. So, yes, (school budget) size matters when comparing NCAA-affiliated schools with NAIA institutions. But, it’s also important to remember that one size doesn’t fit all. That’s why student-athletes, before choosing a college of university, must ask themselves: Will I fit in?

 Megan Gibbs - a scholarship manager with the Wintergreen Orchard House, a clearinghouse for college scholarship data – notes, there are five reasons why NAIA schools may be the way to go:

  1. Competition: “If you don't think you can cut it at a NCAA Division I school, NAIA athletics are compared to Division II-level playing. You would have a good shot of starting on an NAIA team instead of being benched on a NCAA Division I team.”
  2. Flexibility: “The NAIA is not as strict as the NCAA. The NAIA allows its schools/conferences to handle their own rules and budgets.”
  3. Academic success: In NAIA schools, “You have to be academically responsible, moving towards completing your degree with reasonable grades in order to even think about playing.”
  4. Size: Because NAIA schools are smaller, “it's easier to not get lost in the mix in these schools.”
  5. Recruitment: “NCAA has rules for rules. There are rules for each division and each sport for each high school year that you are being recruited. It can be exhausting. The NAIA of course has rules, but they are not as intricate and also allow for a more personalized process.”

If you are a student-athlete trying to decide whether to attend an NAIA-affiliated college or university, check out the NAIA search tool so you can explore by sport and see what schools are NAIA-affiliated.  

 Check Out Fisher College Athletics - NAIA men and women's athletics teams - Click here to learn more

 What's your favorite NAIA or NCAA team, athlete or factoid? Let us know below! 

Topics: Boston Campus, Boston Student Experience, Athletics, Day Student Posts

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