Navigating the college search process can be overwhelming for anyone, but it can be especially challenging for student-athletes. In addition to academics and program offerings, student-athletes have to consider factors that will affect their athletic careers. As a college athlete, in general, you’re either part of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) or National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA). Each come with their own set of rules, schools, budgets, and more. With media the way it is these days, the NCAA tends to grab the most attention, while the NAIA is somewhat of an afterthought.
But selecting the right school comes down to priorities. For someone aspiring to play sports professionally, an NCAA Division I school may be the most logical choice. However, the remaining 98% of student-athletes may choose to prioritize the opportunity to play, program size, scholarships, and connection to the coach. For those student-athletes, choosing an NAIA school is a great option for a fulfilling collegiate athletics experience.
About the NAIA
Headquartered in Kansas City, Missouri, the NAIA is a governing body of small athletics programs dedicated to character-driven intercollegiate athletics. Since 1937, the NAIA has administered programs dedicated to championships in balance with the overall college educational experience. Each year, more than 65,000 NAIA student-athletes have the opportunity to play college sports, earn over $600 million in scholarships, and compete for a chance to participate in 26 national championships.
NAIA vs. NCAA
What are the main differences between the NCAA and the NAIA? It basically comes down to size. The NAIA offers 26 championships in 13 sports, with around 60,000 student-athletes at 300 member colleges and universities throughout the United States and Canada. The NCAA oversees 89 championships in 23 sports and has more than 400,000 student-athletes competing in Divisions I, II, and III at over 1,000 colleges and universities.
Related: The College Sports Glossary of Terms
Why choose the NAIA?
As it is with all things in life, it's important to check out all your options. You may have been planning to head to an NCAA school, but what about NAIA? Colleges in this association can offer just as good an education and athletic experience as the NCAA with fewer restrictions during the recruitment process. The NAIA is focused on the student-athlete, including academics and character building in addition to athletics. The NAIA also offers its schools the flexibility to tailor their programs, providing the best possible student-athlete experience. Other factors to consider include:
Conference and recruitment flexibility
The NAIA allows its schools and conferences to handle their own rules and budgets. This is a great advantage because schools and conferences can work with what they've got instead of conforming to a set of rules for the entire NAIA organization. This flexibility also extends to the NAIA recruitment process. In the NCAA, there are rules for each division and each sport for each high school year that you’re being recruited. It can be exhausting. The NAIA is not as strict as the NCAA; there are rules, of course, but they aren’t as intricate, which allows for a more personalized process and encourages coach-student mentoring. The association hosts NAIA Showcase events to help coaches and prospective student-athletes find the best mutual fit. To determine your eligibility and learn the nitty-gritty about the recruitment process, visit playnaia.org.
Competition and playing time
The NAIA provides a high-caliber experience with 26 national championships, including the only competitive cheer and competitive dance championships hosted by a collegiate athletics association. In 2018, the NAIA became the first association to recognize women’s wrestling as an invitational sport. With 17% of student-athletes competing, a higher percentage of NAIA student-athletes participate in post-season play compared to 14% in NCAA D-II and 10% in NCAA D-III. If you don't think you can cut it at a NCAA Division I school, NAIA athletics are compared to NCAA Division II–level playing. You’d have a good shot of starting on an NAIA team instead of being benched on a NCAA Division I team.
School size and academics
The NAIA is completely centered around the total meaning of being a student-athlete. You have to be academically responsible, moving toward completing your degree with reasonable grades in order to even think about playing. Also, NAIA schools are smaller in general, which in itself can be a plus for your academics, social life, and athletic career. It's easier to not get lost in the mix at NAIA schools.
Champions of Character® program
In addition to quality athletics, the NAIA emphasizes character development for coaches, staff, and student-athletes. The Champions of Character® program focuses on teaching integrity, respect, responsibility, sportsmanship, and servant leadership, all of which help prepare student-athletes for lifelong success. The program also reaches high school and youth sports through outreach activities at every NAIA championship event through their Teaming Up for Character program.
At the end of the day, a student-athlete has to choose the school that best meets their personal needs. The NAIA may not seem as "glamorous" as the NCAA, but it’s no less of a choice when choosing which college you should attend. Neither association has an effect on the education you’ll receive or how much of an amazing time you'll have playing your sport. If anything, they are both in existence to make sure that you have the best possible experience, athletically and academically. Considering NAIA schools significantly expands your options and increases the likelihood of finding a college that fits. And that’s the goal of any college search—to find the best possible place and experience.
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