D1 vs. D2 vs. D3 Schools: What’s the Difference?

Ever wondered what the different school sports divisions are? Check out our breakdown of D1 vs. D2 vs. D3 schools — and learn why this matters for you.
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Updated on March 21, 2023
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  • NCAA divisions regulate collegiate sports and promote equity.
  • Division 1 schools are widely considered to have the best athletic programs.
  • Student-athletes may receive full or partial scholarships depending on their school's division.
  • A school's division should not be the sole consideration for non-athletes when deciding where to apply.

Ever heard people say you should attend a D1 school over a D2 or a D3 school for college? D1 schools stand out because they are the largest schools with the biggest budgets to support their athletic programs.

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), an organization that currently governs 24 collegiate sports, labels schools as D1, D2, or D3. With schools today having a range of 25-39% of their students as athletes, as per the NCAA, it's important to know how the NCAA designates D1, D2, and D3 schools — and how it may impact your college experience.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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How Many NCAA Divisions Exist? Why Are There Different Divisions?

The NCAA is a nonprofit organization serving as the administrative and legislative authority for women's and men's intercollegiate athletics. In 1973, the NCAA established three divisions for colleges to group like-minded campuses: Division 1, Division 2, and Division 3.

These divisions were designed to group similar campuses that align in opportunity, philosophy, and competition so that no one athletic program can have an unfair advantage. A school's size and the resources of its athletics program determines its NCAA division.

To ensure fairness in competition, larger schools compete in Division 1 and Division 2, while smaller schools compete in Division 3. Division 1 and 2 schools can offer athletic scholarships, while Division 3 schools cannot.

Which NCAA Division Is Considered the Best?

Division 1 comprises the largest universities with many of the best athletic programs in the nation. Division 1 schools must sponsor seven men's and seven women's sports at a minimum, or six men's sports and eight women's sports at a minimum.

Because of their popularity, these schools tend to be the largest schools with the largest student bodies. They give out the most athletic scholarships in the three divisions and therefore tend to recruit the best athletes.

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What Are the Differences Between D1, D2, and D3?

Whether you are a student-athlete or not, there are many differences between D1, D2, and D3 schools that you should know if you're a fan of college sports.

Division 1 Schools

Division 1 Schools are known to have the best college athletes, especially in popular sports like football and basketball. There are 350 D1 schools with about 6,000 teams, covering a wide array of sports from football to volleyball to golf.

Division 1 schools have large budgets and elaborate sports facilities. They also give full athletic scholarships. All of the well-known sports conferences, such as the Southeastern Conference, Atlantic Coast Conference, Big 10, and Pac 12, are made up of Division 1 schools.

Division 2 Schools

D2 schools differ from D1 schools in that they are usually slightly smaller universities. Compared to D1 and D3, D2 has the fewest number of schools with only about 300 colleges. Their programs still cover a variety of sports, however, and D2 schools compete against regional rivals instead of national competitors.

Unlike Division 1 athletes who receive full athletic scholarships, most student-athletes in this division are only offered partial scholarships. Like Division 1, scholarship recipients must meet NCAA eligibility requirements.

Division 3 Schools

D3 is the largest division with 440 schools. About 195,000 student-athletes compete in a variety of sports in D2 schools.

Unlike Division 1 and Division 2, athletic scholarships are not available to D3 student-athletes. However, most of these student-athletes often qualify for academic scholarships and need-based aid.

Division 1 Division 2 Division 3
Number of Member Schools 350 309 443
Number of Teams 6,704 4,927 8,320
Average Enrollment Size 11,820 3,880 2,631
Total Athletics Scholarship $2.85 billion $780 million $0
Percentage of Athletes Who Receive Athletics Scholarships 57% 63% 0%*

*80% of D3 athletes receive non-athletic aid

Should Sports Impact Your College Decision?

If you're not a student-athlete, it's not wise to choose a college based on a sports program. It may be a factor to consider if you're a sports enthusiast, but it shouldn't be the only reason you decide whether or not to attend a particular college.

Generally speaking, you should prioritize schools' academic reputations and degree programs over their athletic programs.

Frequently Asked Questions About NCAA Divisions

Are D1 schools more expensive to attend than D2 or D3 schools?

Students may find that the tuition for a Division 1 school is more expensive than a Division 2 or Division 3 school. Despite the sometimes full scholarships student-athletes receive in D1 schools, hidden fees in every student's tuition bill may raise the total cost.

Can a D2 school become a D1 school?

Yes, a Division 2 school can become a Division 1 school. To do so, it will need to meet the Division 1 requirements. This means increasing the number of sports offered and sponsoring a minimum of seven men's and seven women's sports, or six men's and eight women's sports.

Additionally, the school must offer full scholarships to student-athletes.

How many NCAA D1 football and basketball teams are there?

There are 131 D1 college football teams in the Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). The FBS is divided into 10 conferences with an average of six teams per conference. There are currently 358 D1 college basketball teams. The teams are broken up into 32 conferences, with an average of 11 teams per conference.

BestColleges.com is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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