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How Does NAIA Compare to D1, D2, and D3?

The difference in divisions isn’t hierarchical, instead, NAIA shares a lot of similarities with Division Two and Division Three with a greater focus on academics and most of the travel being regional instead of cross-country. Many NAIA programs don’t offer full scholarships but can provide financial aid for many athletes.

I was fortunate enough to play college basketball at the Division Two level. While it was still plenty of work, I did have enough time to sit back and enjoy my college experience too, and didn’t feel tethered to the team or my training year-round like most Division One athletes do. I think I would have enjoyed playing at the NAIA level as well if I’d had the opportunity.

So if the different college levels aren’t linear, what other leagues does NAIA have the most in common with and why? In this article, we’ll explain what similarities NAIA has with Division Two and Division Three and why it still falls well short of the competition level you can find in Division One. 

Key Takeaways

  • While some NAIA players may be able to play Division One, the overall talent gap between the two leagues is quite large
  • NAIA has a competition level somewhere between Division Two and Division Three
  • Most of the travel is regional with most NAIA leagues putting a bigger focus on academics

Skill Levels Aren’t Linear Between the Leagues

It’s important to keep in mind that the difference between the various divisions and leagues isn’t hierarchical. Instead, there’s a lot of overlap in talent between the three divisions, NAIA, and even junior college. Some players that are considered “Division One Talent” may slip through the cracks for a variety of reasons such as poor grades, off-the-field issues, or simply poor recruiting by colleges. [1]

Here’s a good way to look at the relationship between the various levels of competition:

NAIA Compared to Division One

NAIA players tend to be of a much lesser quality than most division one programs. Division One teams have more money for recruiting and facilities and many “high major” division one conferences also have lucrative television deals and boosters that allow them to function like a professional football team. [2]

The lives of a division one player are more similar to professional athletes with year-round training, nationally televised games in front of tens of thousands of people, and little balance between school, athletics, and work. While a handful of NAIA players may be good enough for the highest collegiate level, the overall difference in talent is immense.

NAIA Compared to Division Two & Division Three

But when compared to the two lower divisions, NAIA is more comparable. Many division two programs are larger and better financed than NAIA schools with more opportunities to travel and play at a competitive level. There are plenty of Division Two athletes that probably deserve a spot on a division one roster. While still time-consuming, Division two programs don’t have the same commitment as bigger programs, offering a better balance between academics and athletics. 

Division Three has a bigger focus on academics, but there are still plenty of highly skilled players in Division Three that are looking to focus more on their studies but still want to play collegiately. Traveling is more limited to local regions with most teams traveling via bus and rarely flying across the country.

There are two divisions of NAIA, but for the sake of this conversation, they both have a lot in common with both Division Two and Division Three. NAIA emphasizes academics and there is generally financial aid available even if there aren’t a lot of lucrative “full-ride” scholarships available. Like Division Three, most of the games are regional with most teams traveling to road games by bus or train. [3]



The overwhelming majority of college athletes will never play professionally. Because of this, the larger focus on academics at Division Two, Division Three, and NAIA can be more beneficial. This along with a better balance of athletics and academics can lead to a more enjoyable college experience, though the players probably won’t see their highlights on ESPN.

If you played collegiately at any level, we’d love to hear about your experience in the comments below. 


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