College Sports: Answers to the Most Common Questions

Whether you’re interested in becoming a student athlete, your child is interested in college sports, or you’re just curious about how collegiate athletics works, we’re here to answer your burning questions. Let’s dive right into the world of college sports!

  • What is the NCAA?
  • Which sports are offered in college?
  • What are the divisions in college sports?
  • Can you start college sports once you’ve already enrolled in a school?
  • Is there an age limit for college sports?
  • Do community colleges have sports?
  • Can graduate students play college sports?
  • What is an athletic scholarship?

What is the NCAA? 

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) is the governing body for intercollegiate athletics. The NCAA is a nonprofit that controls the rules surrounding student-athlete lifestyle, coaches, games, conferences, etc. It ensures that athletics are prioritized at the college level while preserving the wellbeing, safety, health, and education of the student-athletes. 

 

Which sports are offered in college? 

If you play a sport, you can probably find a college that offers it!


The NCAA sanctions the following men’s’ sports: 

  • Basketball
  • Baseball
  • Soccer
  • Football
  • Lacrosse
  • Ice hockey
  • Volleyball
  • Water polo
  • Track (indoor + outdoor)
  • Cross country
  • Swimming and diving
  • Golf
  • Tennis
  • Wrestling

The following women’s sports are offered with the NCAA:

  • Basketball
  • Volleyball
  • Soccer
  • Softball
  • Lacrosse
  • Field hockey
  • Ice hockey
  • Water polo
  • Track (outdoor + indoor)
  • Cross country
  • Swimming and diving
  • Tennis
  • Golf (check out our school-branded golf balls!)
  • Equestrian 
  • Gymnastics

If you play a sport not on this list, that doesn’t mean it’s not offered in college. It just means it is not a NCAA-governed sport. You’ll need to do some digging to find the universities and colleges that offer your specific program through club sports. 

What are divisions in college sports? 

The NCAA divides schools into three divisions. Division I, or D-I, is the highest level of competition, and these schools have the largest budgets for athletics. D-II is the next level of competition, and D-III is the lowest division with the smallest budgets for the athletic department. The purpose of these divisions is to create an even playing field (pun intended), so schools with huge athletic budgets aren’t up against colleges with fewer resources.  


Many student-athletes want to attend Division I schools because they have the largest athletic budgets, which usually means the best resources. D-I schools (except for Ivy Leagues) also offer full-ride athletic scholarships for a lot of their recruited players. D-I schools tend to offer the most competitive programs as well. 


D-I schools are typically more regulated because of their larger budgets and student bodies. For example, D-I schools have to sponsor at least six sports for men and eight sports for women in all three playing seasons. They must also play 100% of the minimum number of contests against D-I opponents, for sports other than football and basketball. 


Learn more about the details and differences in the divisions here.  

What are club and intramural college sports?

Divisions are for student athletes who will be competing at the highest level in college sports. If an athlete doesn’t have the required skills or doesn’t want to participate at this rigorous collegiate level, there are other options to play your favorite sports at school. 


Club sports are the next level of competitive athletics in colleges and universities. They still require tryouts, and you’ll play games against other schools with which your school has a club network. For a lot of schools, club sports can be just as competitive as division sports. Club sports are a great way to play sports competitively in college without the rigor of collegiate sports. However, there are no athletic scholarships offered for club sports, and they’re not regulated by the NCAA.


Intramural sports are more informal and accessible to all students interested in athletics. They’re a casual way to play sports with your friends in a low-level competition. Typically, you and a group of friends will create a team for a specific intramural sport, and then you’ll be assigned to games and tournaments. Intramural college sports include everything from basketball and flag football to Quidditch and kickball. Check out these 9 weird college sports (that we wish we could try out for). 

Can you start college sports once you’ve already enrolled in a school?

If you’re interested in playing in D-I or D-II schools, you’ll probably need to be recruited for that sport out of high school. These programs are highly competitive, and it’s almost impossible to try out for them once school has already started. You’ll typically need to apply as a student-athlete if you’re interested in playing varsity-level sports, being recruited by college coaches, and/or receiving athletic scholarships.


D-III schools may also recruit, but there is also the possibility that you will need to apply to a D-III school and then try out for the team at the beginning of the season. You’ll need to check with the individual college to see what their try-out process looks like. 


Most club sports are also on a seasonal-tryout basis. If you want to play club sports, you first want to make sure your school offers the sport and then find out the try out day. Keep in mind that club sports still have fierce competition, so these tryouts won’t be easy; it’s still a good idea to establish a strong relationship with the coaches and teammates. 


Learn about the transfer rules with the NCAA here.

Is there an age limit for college sports?

There’s no “age limit” for college sports, but there are restrictions based on years out of high school. The NCAA provides 5 years of eligibility to complete 4 athletic seasons. The fifth year also works as a grace period to take a year between high school and college. This also provides the ability for a “red-shirt” year, which is time off for injury, family reasons, etc.  This rule means you are no longer eligible to play in college sports five years after your high school graduation.


These rules only apply to D-I and D-II programs. Each school and conference determines the eligibility standards for the D-III level. So, if you’re attending college later and want to play college sports, you should look into Division III schools. 


Read: Dorm Room Essentials for First Year Students

Can graduate students play college sports?

Graduate students can play college-level sports, as long as they don’t exceed the 5-year maximum full-time degree enrollment period. So, a D-I athlete could play for four years at the college level and one more year with postgrad eligibility in a graduate-level program. If a student graduated early from an undergrad program, such as in 3 years, they would then be eligible to play for two years in college sports while in graduate school. 


Russell Wilson is an example of this. He graduated from NC State and then transferred to the University of Wisconsin in 2011 for graduate school, where he played college football for his fifth year of eligibility. 


It’s highly unlikely for PhD students to play on a college sports team. The time between first entering college and starting the PhD would have to be less than five years while maintaining eligibility, which doesn’t happen frequently. 


However, a lot of graduate programs still offer intramurals or even club sports for their students. 

Do community colleges have sports?

About half of all community colleges offer a college sports program, and it’s becoming more popular. Of the 11-12 million students enrolled in community colleges annually, about 50,000 participate in intercollegiate athletics.


The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA), a division of the NCAA, regulates athletics for four-year community colleges. They currently have 530 member colleges with 15 men’s and 13 women’s sports, along with 50 national championships and 9 football games. Community colleges play in a league with other community colleges, so they wouldn’t compete against any NCAA-regulated schools. 


Not all community colleges offer sports, but you can check if your local college does with a quick Google search. You can also learn more about athletics in community colleges here

What is an athletic scholarship? 

Athletic scholarships award financial aid to student-athletes. There are different types of athletic scholarships based on the program division, budget of the school, and the individual athletic department. 


In Division I schools, full athletic scholarships are available. For some students, these scholarships may cover the entire cost of tuition, and some may even include room and board. At Division II schools, there are partial athletic scholarships available, as well as academic and need-based scholarships. The athletic scholarship may pay for part of the tuition, based on the budget of the school. Division III schools don’t offer athletic scholarships, but the team will usually help student-athletes find other scholarship opportunities for financial aid. 


Note that Ivy Leagues are Division I, but they are not allowed to offer athletic scholarships. Get more information for Ivy League prospective athletes here


These scholarship rules refer to athletic scholarships that come from the college or university athletic department. Some private athletic programs can also award partial scholarships to individual students if they apply. Check out these 57 scholarships for student athletes to start browsing. 

 

How can I choose the right school for me as an athlete? 

There are a lot of factors to consider when choosing your college, even if you’re not a student athlete. It’s not just about going to a school that has your college sports program. You want to find the right fit in terms of the athletic department and team, as well as the atmosphere and educational programs at the school as well. Here are some questions to consider (and get you started):

  • Does this school offer my sport?
  • What does the athletic program look like? What is the level of athletic competition?
  • Do I like the coaches and team? What’s the team’s reputation? Are there any NCAA violations?
  • What are the academic performance requirements to be a student-athlete? 
  • What do the academics look like? Will it be too demanding while playing a sport? Will it be challenging enough for me? 
  • Do they offer a major that interests me?
  • What’s the graduation rate among athletes? What does this look like compared to the graduation rate of the entire student body?
  • What career services does the school offer? 
  • Do they have tutoring and academic help services? Are any services geared towards student-athletes?
  • Do they have any available athletic scholarships? Are they renewable?
  • Do they offer additional types of scholarships for which I can apply? 
  • What happens if I get injured and can’t participate in the sport? Is there a rehabilitation program?
  • How much time per week is required for practice and games? How much travel is involved?
  • What is the policy for making up missed classes and exams due to the sport? 
  • Are there special room and board arrangements for athletes? 
  • Does the college feel like home to me? Am I excited by the opportunity to live in this city and go to school here?
  • Learn more by reading What You Should Know as a College-Bound Student Athlete.

Most importantly, student-athletes must consider their interest in the school as a whole. Would you enjoy attending this school if you weren’t playing a sport? Would you be proud to wear these campus colors?

How can I support college sports?

Whether you’re interested in playing sports in college, you’re a participating school athlete, or you’re a supporter on the sideline, there are a lot of ways you can get involved in college sports. You have pride for your school and its athletics, so show it off! Rep your school colors to show your pride for your team!


Find your school here to cheer on your team!