Many high school students desire to play sports in college. Playing sports in college is a great way to continue a passion for athleticism, it’s also a way to win funding to make college more affordable. At the end of your college experience, it can also be a way to show leadership acumen to an employer. On the flip side, playing sports in college requires extensive planning in high school and an even greater commitment of time in college.

What are the main sports associations?

The first step is to understand the landscape of college sports. At the 30,000 foot level, there are primarily three athletic associations across most colleges today:

  1. National College Athletic Association, or NCAA. The NCAA is a massive network. It consists of almost 500,000 student athletes, 19,500 teams, and 1,098 schools. It’s also a major source of scholarships, giving $3.5 billion annually. Note the organization has two websites: and The .com website is mostly geared toward marketing, whereas the .org site contains information for future athletes and stakeholders.
  2. National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or NAIA. The NAIA has 65,000 student-athletes, more than 250 schools, and awards $600 million in scholarships. Student-athletes should visit for information.
  3. National Junior College Athletic Association, or NJCAA. This association is focused on two-year, or community college athletics. Keep in mind many students end up competing at the two-year level with hopes of transferring to one of the other associations.

Most students aspire to NCAA Division I (or “D1”) athletics. Certainly this drive for “the best” is admirable. Keep in mind, though, Division II (or “D2”) schools might be the better option for your son or daughter. Why? Division II schools still give out a large pool of that $2.9 billion in funding. Many are less competitive in terms of recruitment and offer greater study-play balance. Division III (or “D3”) schools can be a great way to continue playing a sport, although this level does not award athletic scholarships. This doesn’t mean, however, you can’t make up that deficit with academic scholarships. A general rule to keep in mind is different division levels – across college sports associations – will offer varying amounts of scholarship funding.

What is eligibility?

The majority of the high school planning involves determining eligibility with each association. In essence the eligibility process is where an association certifies your son or daughter as eligible to pay sports in college based on predetermined criteria. This typically involves a potential athlete meeting various academic and association standards, such as graduating high school, taking a specific curriculum, or attaining a minimum GPA or standardized test score. Note eligibility is something athletes must maintain while in college. For instance, college athletes need to maintain amateur status to remain eligible to play their sport. In other words – and generally speaking – college athletes can’t be paid like a professional athlete.

Here at the links to the eligibility center websites for the aforementioned associations:

  1. NCAA
  2. NAIA
  3. NJCAA

How can I successfully navigate the recruitment process?

Beyond eligibility, the second source of confusion and planning for families revolves around recruitment. The general rule is that recruiting rules vary in complexity depending on the division, with the most complex rules reserved for higher levels of competition. For instance, rules surrounding NCAA DI athletics are extremely extensive, consisting of different “contact, evaluation, quiet, and dead” periods that are calendarized in its Guide for the College-Bound Student-Athlete. Another point of confusion for families are letters of intent, documents athletes sign to signal intention to play sports for a specific school. Again, the rules can be complex. Take this example: the NJCAA reports that signing a letter of intent with an NJCAA and a NCAA college won’t get your child a sanction, but signing with two NJCAA schools will. When in doubt, talk to the coaches at your schools of choice or call the association’s national office.

How can I get more information on playing sports in college?

Luckily, the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA have quite a bit of experience guiding families through this planning process. Each association publishes materials that overview how to navigate the recruitment and eligibility processes. Here are the best resources for each association:




Hopefully this guide will help you start the process toward participating in college athletics. If you need specific guidance, feel free to contact me at

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