D1 vs D2 vs D3 College Athletics – What is the Difference?

December 15, 2023

d1 vs d2 vs d3 college athletics division 1

College sports are hard to ignore. Every year, March Madness turns diehards and the sports-uninterested alike into college hoops prognosticators and bettors. College football continues to capture our national attention with its storylines of unexpected heroes, heartbreaking tragedy, and the occasional controversy. College athletics, in other words, have become a fixture in the world of American sports and entertainment. So it’s no wonder that the vernacular of college sports has seeped into the mainstream, too. At this point, terms like D1, D2, and D3 aren’t—excuse the pun—inside baseball. But what exactly are the differences among the NCAA division designations? What are the relative advantages or disadvantages of attending a D1 vs D2 vs D3 school? We’ll explore those questions and more below.

D1 vs D2 vs D3 – the basics

Let’s start with the organization that came up with the D1 vs D2 vs D3 designations in the first place: the NCAA. The National Collegiate Athletic Association—NCAA for short—is a nonprofit organization that supervises and regulates college sports in over a thousand colleges and universities, overwhelmingly in the United States (there are a few NCAA athletics programs in Puerto Rico and Canada). But already we’ve got our first wrinkle because the NCAA’s classification as a nonprofit is somewhat head-scratching and maybe even a little oxymoronic.

Every year, the NCAA rakes in over a billion dollars from March Madness alone, and college football and basketball coaches continue to ink long-term contracts with average annual values in the millions and tens of millions of dollars. But college athletes, per NCAA rules, aren’t paid. Yes, they can be the NCAA’s primary attraction, and yes, they can sustain serious on-field injuries, but paying them for their performance? That’s a no-no.

D1 vs D2 vs D3 College Athletics (Continued)

In fairness, the NCAA can and does provide (some) athletes with scholarships to cover tuition and other expenses like room and board and textbooks. And as the result of a 2021 Supreme Court decision, college athletes are now allowed to earn money by selling the rights to their NIL (name, image, and likeness). This takes the form of endorsement deals, advertisements, public appearances, and self-promotion. Unfortunately, though, only a small percentage of college athletes earn money via NIL ventures.

End of digression: between the NCAA’s inception in 1906 and 1957, there was a single division for all schools. In 1957, the NCAA split into what were then referred to as the University Division and the College Division. It wasn’t until 1973 that the NCAA adopted the current three-division configuration. The divisions were created to prevent certain schools—those with more resources and stronger sports programs—from having an unfair advantage over others. Essentially, a school’s size and the resources of its athletics program are the factors that determine if a school is D1, D2, or D3.

D1 vs D2 vs D3 – main differences

The main D1 vs D2 difference is that D1 schools are larger and have marquee sports programs with big budgets. Both D1 and D2 schools can award scholarships, whereas D3 schools aren’t allowed to give scholarships to athletes.

What is Division 1?

The largest colleges and universities in the country are Division 1. All the prominent college sports conferences, like the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 10, and Pac 12, consist of Division 1 schools. Schools that are household names, with storied athletics histories and continued success in the present day, especially in sports like football and basketball, are in Division 1. Ohio State, UCLA, Michigan and Michigan State, Florida and Florida State, University of Southern California,  Alabama, Purdue, Duke, University of North Carolina, and the University of Connecticut—just to name a few—are all Division 1 schools. These schools attract the best athletes in the country. Still, fewer than 2% of NCAA student-athletes go on to play professionally.

Division 1 is made up of 350 schools with about 6,000 teams total, from football and basketball to volleyball and golf. The median student population for Division 1 schools is 9,000. Schools like the behemoths named above typically have student populations in the tens of thousands. To take a few random examples, Purdue has a student population of 50,000; Ohio State, 61,000; UCLA, 46,000. Texas A&M tops the list of largest colleges by enrollment, with a small-city-sized student population of nearly 75,000.

The D1 vs D2 and D3 disparity is nowhere more prominent than in the schools’ revenue-generating capabilities. In 2019, the athletics programs at NCAA schools across all three divisions brought in a total of $18.9 billion. And nearly all of that nearly $19 billion—96 percent of it, to be exact—was generated by Division 1 schools. Division 2 schools accounted for 3% of the NCAA’s athletics revenue. Lastly, Division 3 schools accounted for that final percentage point.

What is Division 2

Division 2 schools are slightly smaller than Division 1 schools, but like D1 schools, they can award their athletes scholarships. The average enrollment at Division 2 schools is around 4000 students, and there are 300 total Division 2 schools, making it the smallest of the three divisions. Typically, Division 2 teams compete on a regional as opposed to national level.

Another D1 vs D2 difference is the percentage of students who receive athletic scholarships. A higher percentage of Division 2 athletes receive some form of scholarship. According to the NCAA, 53% of D1 athletes receive some form of scholarship; amongst D2 schools, that number is 56%. Division 1 athletes more often than not receive full athletic scholarships, whereas Division 2 athletes generally receive partial scholarships.

What is Division 3?

Division 3 schools have the smallest average enrollment at just 2,600 students. There are a total of 450 Division 3 schools in the NCAA. Unlike D1 or D2 schools, D3 schools don’t award athletic scholarships, although student-athletes are still eligible for academic scholarships and other forms of financial aid.

D1 vs D2 vs D3 – does it matter for you?

There are a number of factors that influence a student’s college choice, among them, in no particular order, cost, location, culture, and academic and extracurricular interests. But before we can answer the above question, some more numbers are in order.

In 2021, there were an estimated 15.44 million undergraduate students enrolled at colleges and universities nationwide. Of that roughly 15 and a half million, just 465,000 students participated in sports programs. So just 3% of all college students participate in a sport.

For an overwhelming majority of college-bound high school grads, then, the whole D1 vs D2 or D3 thing shouldn’t really be a factor in choosing a suitable school. Most college students—97% of them—don’t participate in NCAA sports. For non-athletes (and ideally, for athletes, too), the college experience is centered on academics. Therefore, it’s more advisable to consider a school’s academic reputation/strengths in the process of deciding on a school.

Of course, I’m making broad proclamations that won’t apply to everyone. D1 schools do, as noted above, have larger student populations and competitive athletics programs. If you’re someone who thinks they’d thrive in a bigger school, where the school’s sports are a part of the fabric of student life, hey—by all means, explore D1 schools. And if you’re someone who knows they’d like a school with a smaller, more intimate campus, then maybe it’d make sense to limit your search to D3 schools. But for the broad majority of students, the D1 vs D2 vs D3 distinction is pretty much irrelevant.

D1 vs D2 vs D3 – college experience for athletes

If you’re among that athletically-inclined 3%, though, then it might make sense to consider what type of college experience you’re looking to have. For students participating in sports at Division 1 or 2 schools, athletics will take up a significant portion of their time. Division 1 student-athletes dedicate an average of 33 hours a week to athletics; for Division 2 athletes, their total time invested in athletics per week came out to an average of 31 hours. Division 3 student-athletes, on the other hand, spend an average of 28 hours a week on athletics. So Division 1 athletes have to contend with almost a full week’s worth of work—just on athletics.

A day in the life of a Division 1 college football player will help give a sense of the level of commitment we’re talking about: a 5 AM wake up, then a two-hour strength and conditioning session, which is usually followed by a team meeting. Classes then take up the rest of the morning and run into the early afternoon. But then it’s back to work: meeting to watch game film, prepping for practice, and a two-to-three-hour practice session. And once that’s all said and done, you’ve still got to eat. Oh, and then you’ve got to do your homework, study for your tests, and get to bed for tomorrow morning’s early workout.

D1 vs D2 vs D3 College Athletics (Continued)

Of course, not every Division 1 student athlete’s schedule will be so time-intensive, jam-packed, and regimented. But the basic takeaway should be clear. It is a major commitment to participate in sports at D1 or D2 schools. And 67% percent of D1 student-athletes and 63% of D2 student-athletes reported spending as much or more time on athletics during the off-season as during their competitive season.

The experience of Division 3 student-athletes is a bit more balanced. Division 3 student-athletes spend an average of 40 hours per week on academics and 28 hours per week on athletics. And while 28 hours per week on sports alone is still a major commitment and time investment, participation in college sports at the Division 3 level is not generally seen as a hindrance to academic performance.

D1 vs D2 vs D3 – Final Thoughts 

So there you have it: for the vast majority of college students, the D1 vs D2 vs D3 distinction is irrelevant. And for student-athletes, the decision to attend a D1 vs a D2 or D3 school will depend largely on the type of college experience they want to have and the type of commitment they want to make.

D1 vs D2 vs D3 – Additional Resources

We hope you enjoy our article on the difference between Division 1 vs Division 2 vs Division 3. You may also find the following blogs to be of interest: