What Athletes Need to Know Before Starting the College Recruiting Process

Woman tying shoe representing what you need to know to start the college recruiting processThis is a basic introduction to the college recruiting landscape. I’m sure there will be many who will read this and think, “you’ve got to be kidding-how could you not know this?” Yet, you would be surprised at how many families don’t know that D3 schools don’t offer athletic scholarships or that some rules will depend on the college’s conference. Consider this a review of the basic college athletic terms that you need to know to even start the college recruiting process.

Groups Regulating College Athletics

Colleges belong to a sanctioning organization that makes the rules for intercollegiate play and the college recruiting process. As members, the colleges and universities make the rules that they agree to abide by. They also decide on any enforcement mechanisms. The most commonly known organization is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) because of the BCS Bowl Series for football and the March Madness Tournament for basketball.

Scholarship Rules

You need to understand the scholarship rules before you start the college recruiting process. The sanctioning organizations set the maximum number of scholarships allowed per sport along with rules and regulations for athletes and coaches. It’s important to realize that just because a school is allowed 10 scholarships doesn’t mean that it actually has to offer them. There isn’t any one public place where colleges list the actual number of scholarships they fund. Depending on the sport, estimates are that only half of allowable scholarships are actually funded.

calendar pages representing college athletic timelines for college recruitingFurthermore, the organizations all set minimum academic standards such as SAT and ACT scores and high school GPA. They establish rules for communication between coaches and prospective players. In other words, there are times and conditions when a coach just can’t talk to a player. Scholarship amounts and lengths are also defined by the sanctioning organization.

Different Levels of Competition

Baseball field on united states map representing different divisions in college athleticsEach organization is made up of divisions. In the case of the NCAA, it has three divisions. The big sports colleges that most people are familiar with are generally in Division 1 and offer athletic scholarships. Division 3 schools do not offer any athletic scholarships. That doesn’t mean they don’t have teams, just that they don’t offer athletes scholarships just to play sports. Therefore, you need to start the college recruiting process by focusing on the appropriate division for your talent level.


Each division is made up of conferences which are groups of schools that are essentially leagues. Each conference can make rules above and beyond those required by the sanctioning organization. For example, the Ivy Group (league) conference, Harvard, Yale, Princeton, etc, does not allow scholarships for athletes even though they are Division 1 schools. Other conferences may have higher academic standards or limitations on the number of practice hours or games played.
graduation hat on money representing college recruiting scholarshipsConferences can consist of public and private institutions. The tuition for public universities will be different for in-state and out-of-state students. Out-of-state tuition can be as high as private school tuition. Both types can provide athletes with additional financial aid and non-athletic scholarship money. However, private colleges can generally offer much more money than public ones. Public universities may be able to offer in-state tuition to out-of-state students who meet certain academic requirements.

Independent Colleges

A school can belong to a sanctioning body, such as the NCAA, and not belong to a specific conference. These are referred to as independent schools. Institutions can also have some of its teams compete in one conference while another may compete in a different conference. It is not uncommon for colleges to change conferences, divisions, or even move from one sanctioning body to another.

Types of Athletic Scholarships

There are various types of athletic scholarships. Head count scholarships are assigned on the basis of one scholarship per player. Football is a headcount sport for D1 BCS Football in the NCAA. The other type is equivalency scholarships. A team may have ten scholarships but they can be divided up and awarded to more than ten players. Each sport has its own rules on how many players can receive a scholarship and how small of a proportion can be awarded. Baseball is an equivalency sport.

Basketball and mortar board representing college athletics scholarshipsUntil 2011, the maximum length of a NCAA scholarship was one year. It was generally expected that the scholarship would be renewed for all four years but it was not required. Colleges can now award multi-year scholarships but do not have to. Players should visit the National College Players Association for more information before they start the college recruiting process.

Major College Athletic Organizations

Before athletes start the college recruiting process,  they need to be familiar with the following major organizations that set the rules for college athletics. 

National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)

The majority (over 1,200 members) of four-year colleges belong to the NCAA. The NCAA consists of three divisions. Divisions 1 and 2 are allowed to offer athletic scholarships with Division 1 offering the most. Students interested in playing in Division 1 or 2 must register with the NCAA Eligibility Center and meet minimum NCAA academic requirements as part of the recruiting process.

The largest division is Division 3 with over 400 members. Division 3 members may not offer any athletic scholarships. Athletes may receive scholarships but not for playing a sport. Division 3 athletic recruits do not register with the NCAA. They also do not participate in the National Letter of Intent.

National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA)

Over 250 four-year institutions are members of the NAIA. There are two divisions and both offer athletic scholarships. Division 2 members offer fewer basketball scholarships than Division 1. All potential athletes must register with the NAIA Eligibility Center and meet minimum academic standards.

National Christian College Athletic Association (NCCAA)

The NCCAA consists of two divisions for a combined membership of over 100 institutions. Students meet eligibility through the college’s athletic director. Only Division 1 schools can offer athletic scholarships.

National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA)

The NJCAA consists of two-year private and public institutions with a few four-year members. There are three divisions with only Division 1 and Division 2 allowed to offer scholarships. The NJCAA has an online eligibility system where students register each season.

The NJCAA offers more scholarships than the NCAA in some sports such as Baseball and Lacrosse as well as having lower academic requirements. It also may be easier to transfer as a junior to a four-year program than to change from one four-year institution to another. However, as with all two-year colleges, there is a significant risk that not all coursework will transfer.


What Athletes Need to Know Before Starting the College Recruiting Process

18 thoughts on “What Athletes Need to Know Before Starting the College Recruiting Process”

  1. Michelle, Great information.
    I have a business question. Given that one of my major programs is test prep, do the high school athletic directors get involved in helping student-athletes get test prep help? Are they involved? Do they push this to the counselor? Would they be a good place to start contact? I coached high school football in 2021. In my narrow experience, I did not see the AD or even the other coaches become concerned about helping raise test scores – even though they knew I would provide test prep for free.

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