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College Soccer: What is the difference between NCAA Division-I & NAIA?

ByScotty Jenkins

5 min read

College Soccer: What is the difference between NCAA Division-I & NAIA?

Many soccer athletes across the United States aspire to play their sport at the college level, and it is a dream that often starts young. Some of these athletes daydream about playing in front of a huge crowd at a big Division 1 school, receiving the best equipment, coaching, and of course food along the way.

But in reality, these dreams don’t always work out, and some of these athletes find themselves to be a better fit for the other NCAA divisions - D2 or D3 - and some even end up competing for an NAIA school. While being less talked about, NAIA schools offer the same opportunity to play soccer at a high level, but in a few slightly different ways.

How does the recruitment process differ between NCAA and NAIA schools?

It should come as no surprise that Division 1 schools have the most rules and regulations when it comes to recruitment. With so much money, attention, and competition over the best athletes, the NCAA has to regulate every conversation and incentive that coaches put in front of recruits. NAIA schools, on the other hand, are a little more relaxed and free-flowing with their “regulations”. These regulations include differences in the certain periods that coaches can contact prospective athletes.

  • Communicating with NCAA D-I Coaches

When an athlete is interested in playing or pursuing a collegiate career at a D1 school, they are not allowed to have communication with a coach until after June 15th of their sophomore year of high school. This means that the D1 college coach is not allowed to communicate via email, text, phone call, or conversation until after that date. After this date has occurred, coaches are permitted to extend verbal offers, communicate via the phone, and begin arranging visits to campus. However, an athlete is only able to make an official visit to the specific campus after August 1st of their junior year.

  • Communicating with NAIA Coaches

In the NAIA, athletes and coaches are permitted to contact one another at their own convenience with no rules to certain dates and time periods. Most of the time, NAIA recruiting starts a little bit after all of the D1 dates because these schools will try to pick up any athlete that has not gotten attention from Division-I programs, or missed the cut for those teams.


Another big difference between the two divisions is the contact time periods. In Division 1 soccer, there are several dates that coaches are unable to contact recruits and parents; these periods are considered dead zones. This is when the team is attending National Championships or the week of National Signing Day. In the NAIA, there are no dead periods and coaches can contact freely whenever they want.

To learn more about how coaches interact with athletes and parents, check out these helpful articles!


How do scholarships and financial aid opportunities differ between NCAA and NAIA schools?

The cost of college, and the number of scholarships given out, vary among NCAA Division-I and NAIA as well. Athletic scholarships for DI soccer are some of the most difficult to obtain because these schools are looking for the best talent around the globe - and they usually offer a lot of financial aid for those top athletes.

  • How many athletic scholarships are given by NCAA soccer teams?

Any Division-I program can only hand out 9 scholarships annually to their soccer team, but they can choose how to split up that amount. This means it could be a mix of full-ride or partial scholarships, where they split one scholarship between one, two, or three different athletes. If one player is a talented student who also earned a partial academic scholarship, a coach is likely to give them less in order to help a teammate who needs more financial aid.

  • How many athletic scholarships are given by NAIA soccer teams?

In the NAIA, soccer coaches can offer a maximum of 12 scholarships annually to student-athletes on their teams. Again, it is up to the coach how they would want to split up the scholarships. Since NAIA coaches can contact athletes throughout their entire high school career,  it can be a little easier to be offered an NAIA soccer scholarship.


So, are NCAA soccer players that much better than soccer players at NAIA schools?

One of the largest misconceptions about Division-1 soccer programs is that they have highest level of competition compared to other divisions. While this might be true for some programs, this is not the case for all Division-1 programs across the United States. Being a school in a large conference or in the Division-I ranks certainly does not make it among the best soccer teams in their own state or region. Think of all the top professional leagues who relegate the worst teams each year to a lower league. If that happening among the top NCAA conferences, we may see more small schools competing with Big East and ACC powerhouses. Just like Santa Clara has been able to do in NCAA women's soccer.

NAIA schools do not have the same name recognition, large endowments, or huge fanbases as large Division-I schools, but they certainly offer a similar level of competition. They are a great alternative for athletes that didn't secure an NCAA scholarship, and they can go improve their skills against top national competition while receiving a quality education. Some of the best sports teams have originate out of NAIA schools and with new transfer policies in the NCAA, NAIA programs are a great way to develop your game while looking for an opportunity to earn a scholarship at a Division-I school.


Athletes that don’t get offered a spot to play D1 soccer, might choose to go down the route of playing at D2, D3, or NAIA school. Some of these athletes will love the program and stay there for all four years of their college career. Others might build up their statistics, play for a season or two, and transfer to a bigger school; but this is not the case for all the “best” athletes out there. It really just depends on their attitude toward their current school, and how pleased they are with everything.


There are always a lot of discussions about which division to explore and commit to when starting the soccer recruitment journey. Ultimately, it is the athlete's choice of where they want to go to play and receive their degree. If they have that dream to play D1 soccer then I am always one to support that athlete's dream.

However, as a Division-III soccer player myself, I am just as supportive of playing in the “lower” divisions. They all offer the same opportunity to athletes, which is to play competitive soccer with a group of talented and motivated peers.

Do not be disappointed if those D1 coaches don’t come knocking at your door because I can guarantee you that there are several other options for you to commit yourself to and find success.

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