Understanding the US College Football System

Introduction

The U.S. College System emerges as a promising avenue for aspiring individuals to chase their dream of attaining a professional contract, all while obtaining a high-quality education. People from diverse corners of the globe consider the potential to play soccer as their interpretation of the American dream within this system.

Though the College System is an exciting chance, understanding its setup can be tricky due to the size and complexity of college soccer in the United States. In this blog, we’ll break down how the system works, offering insights for agents and soccer talents aiming to make a smooth entry into the American collegiate scene.

NCAA v. NAIA v. NJCAA

The top three governing bodies for collegiate sports are the NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA. Think of them like the tiers in European Continental Competitions, where the NCAA is akin to the Champions League, followed by the NAIA (Europa League), and lastly, the NJCAA (Conference League). Let’s take a look at each body in more detail.

NCAA- National Collegiate Athletics Association

The NCAA is the biggest and most popular sports association in the country. It is made up of three divisions based on competition level. With Division I arguably being the most competitive, followed by Division II and Division III.

Division I universities often have the largest athletic budgets and offer more valuable scholarships. Each university soccer team generally offers up to 9.9 athletic scholarships on the men’s teams and 14 on the women’s teams. Furthermore, students are also eligible for academic scholarships if they have good academic performance. Division I often serves as the best platform to go professional, many professional team scouts are often present and consistently keep an eye on the best prospects within Division I.

Division I is often the most competitive league, with teams training throughout the year. The official season typically runs from mid-summer till early winter, depending on the performance of the team. The best university teams offer exceptional training facilities similar to the top professional teams. Division I university teams often feature some of the most talented youth players, with many coming from top academies or youth international teams.
Here’s a list of some of the notable men’s and women’s Division I soccer teams

University

Notable Pro Players

Stanford University

Jordan Morris (Seattle Sounders, USMNT)

University of Virginia

Daryl Dike (Orlando City, USMNT)

University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA)

Jimmy Conrad (Retired, former USMNT)

Wakeforest University

Jack Harrison (Everton)

University of Maryland

Zack Steffen, (Colorado Rapids, USMNT)

University of Akron

Darlington Nagbe (Columbus Crew, USMNT)

University

Notable Pro Players

Stanford University

Sophia Smith (Portland Thorns, USWNT)

University of North Carolina

Alessia Russo (Arsenal, England)

University of Virginia

Emily Sonnett (Gotham FC, USWNT)

UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles)

Jessie Flemming (Chelsea, Canada)

University of Wisconsin

Rose Lavelle (Gotham FC, USWNT)


Division II in the NCAA stands as the second-highest level, providing a well-rounded balance between athletics and education. While not as fiercely competitive as Division I, Division II offers a compelling approach to both aspects. Best of all, if the individual performs well, there is always an opportunity to transfer to a competitive university and still keep the professional path alive.

The season typically spans from late June/July until November/December, allowing student-athletes to excel on both academic and athletic fronts. Notably, 60% of Division II athletes benefit from athletic scholarships, and based on academic performance, they may also qualify for additional scholarships.

An intriguing feature is that outstanding performances can pave the way for students to advance to more competitive teams or even transition to a higher division. In Division II women’s soccer, teams offer 9.9 scholarships, while men’s teams provide 9 scholarships. Noteworthy men’s teams in Division II include Grand Valley State University and the University of Charleston, while top women’s teams include Grand Valley State University and the University of Central Missouri.

Division III in the NCAA offers a more lenient format, emphasizing a well-balanced integration of athletics, academics, and social life. Commencing from late June/July and extending through November/December, Division III caters to those seeking the quintessential „American college“ experience while not prioritizing an exclusive focus on their athletic careers. This division provides flexibility for student-athletes to transfer to more competitive divisions if their performances excel.

Unlike Division II, athletic scholarships are not offered in Division III; however, students excelling academically may qualify for academic scholarships. Notable men’s teams in Division III include Amherst College and Messiah University, while top women’s teams feature Williams College and Hardin-Simmons University. Division III epitomizes a collegiate environment where a holistic approach to student life is fostered, making it an ideal choice for those cherishing a comprehensive college experience.

NAIA- National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics

NAIA, standing as a distinct entity from the NCAA, comprises smaller colleges, offering a unique platform for student-athletes. Positioned at a comparable athletic competition level to Division III of the NCAA, NAIA is well-suited for students striving to strike a harmonious balance between academics and athletics. Men’s and women’s teams in NAIA provide a maximum of 12 scholarships per team, fostering an environment where student-athletes can excel both on and off the field.

While teams in the NAIA may not offer the most competitive environment or are in exposure to the pro scouts, pursuing a professional career out of the NAIA is still a possibility, for those intending to. Most notably, Seattle Reign (NWSL) forward, Bethany Balcer played for the Spring Arbor Cougars, which is among the many NAIA colleges.

Recognizing the best men’s colleges in NAIA showcases institutions like Lindsey Wilson College and Oklahoma City University, while top women’s colleges include Spring Arbor University and Keiser University. NAIA emerges as a distinct and accommodating avenue for student-athletes pursuing a well-rounded collegiate experience in smaller college settings.

NJCAA-National Junior College Athletic Association

NJCAA, a junior college program spanning two years, provides a unique avenue for student-athletes. While it may not be as competitive as the NCAA or NAIA, the advantage lies in the potential for players to make a significant impact when transferring to a 4-year program. Scouts and recruiters from higher-level conferences often take notice of junior college players, recognizing their experience compared to high school counterparts. The NJCAA serves as a stepping stone, making it highly feasible for players to transfer to NCAA programs at universities.

NJCAA Division Scholarship Guidelines outline the financial support available:

– Division I Colleges have the authority to grant full athletic scholarships, covering tuition, books, fees, room & board, and even transportation costs. Each sport has specific limits on the number of scholarships that can be granted.

– Division II Colleges may offer athletic scholarships, but the scope is limited to tuition, books, fees, and course-required supplies. Similar to Division I, there are restrictions on the number of scholarships granted for each sport.

– Division III Colleges, however, are not permitted to provide any athletic scholarships. Despite this, the NJCAA pathway remains a valuable route for aspiring student-athletes looking to elevate their game and education.

Summary

In summary, there are diverse pathways for international students seeking to engage in college soccer in the United States, each catering to different aspirations. The decision ultimately rests on individual goals within the collegiate environment. NCAA Division I stands out as the pinnacle of competitiveness, presenting the optimal chance to catch the eye of professional teams. Division II, while less intense, provides similar scholarship opportunities, fostering a balanced focus on both education and football.

For those desiring a more relaxed college experience, NCAA Division III and NAIA offer appealing alternatives. The flexibility to transfer to more competitive colleges based on performance adds an exciting dimension to the collegiate journey. Students are not confined to a specific division, retaining the opportunity to switch colleges, potentially opening doors to professional contracts.

Most conferences ensure a solid academic foundation, preparing students for a successful transition into the post-college world. In essence, the U.S. college soccer landscape accommodates a spectrum of goals, providing a dynamic and rewarding experience for international student-athletes.

Scholarships- Women’s College Teams

Body

Number of Teams

Average Roster Size

Max Athletic Scholarships Per School

D1

333

28

14

D2

265

27

9.9

D3

441

25

N/A

NAIA

188

25

12

NJCAA

181

19

18


Scholarships-Men’s College Teams

Division

Number of Schools

Average Roster Size

Max Scholarships per School

D1

205

29

9.9

D2

214

31

9

D3

415

29

N/A

NAIA

188

30

12

NJCAA

217

19

18

 

 

Dr Erkut Sogut & Rucheek Kuppachi

2 Comments
  • Why do women’s college teams (D1 and D2) have a higher max scholarship per school than men’s college teams?

    Am I reading your data incorrectly here? I thought that Title IX was intended simply to make that number closer to being even.

  • Hello Richard, thank you for sharing your thoughts. Yes, you’re correct regarding the intention of Title IX.

    To answer your question:

    Title IX requires schools to provide equal opportunities for men and women in athletics, which includes scholarships. To comply with Title IX, colleges and universities must ensure equitable funding and resources for men’s and women’s sports.

    However, this doesn’t necessarily mean that each individual sport receives an equal number of scholarships. Instead, the total amount of resources, opportunities, and participation across all sports for each gender must be comparable.

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