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What Does Being a D1, D2, and D3 Athlete Mean?

If you’re a high school athlete, you may be looking into continuing your athletic career in college. As it comes time to shop around between schools and look at their athletic programs, you’ll see that most schools offer either D1, D2, or D3 athletics. But what do these categories mean, and how will they impact your time playing for the college? In this article, we’ll explain everything about what a D1, D2, or D3 athlete is, and how your division impacts your college and athletic experience.

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What do D1, D2, and D3 mean?

D1, D2, and D3 stand for Divisions 1, 2, and 3, which are athletics leagues run by the National Collegiate Athletic Association, or NCAA. These are the leagues that most colleges in the United States compete in. If a team is not competing in the NCAA, it is typically a team that plays inter or intramural friendly matches.

Differences between D1, D2, and D3

Essentially, all of the differences between D1, D2, and D3 are in terms of intensity and competitiveness. D1 is the most competitive and intense, while D3 is the least. D1 athletes’ college experience will be defined by their athletics. Meanwhile, D3 athletes will probably spend less of their time playing and practicing, though it is still a big commitment. Let’s get into how this change in intensity affects each aspect of your college experience.

Financial aid


Although this is not always the case, it is quite common for D1 athletes to get full-ride scholarships. This means that they will not have to pay for any of their college expenses. This includes tuition, room and board, fees, books, and everything else you could imagine. They might even receive a college stipend. If they don’t get a full-ride, they typically at least get substantial financial aid. 


D2 athletes typically get some scholarships, but not nearly as much as D1 athletes. Full-ride scholarships are much less common. However, you can still use your athletic ability to help pay for college as a D2 athlete. 


D3 athletes do not get scholarships directly for their athleticism. Although they might receive money from the school as a result of their athletic accomplishments, it carries a different dynamic than D1 and D2 financial aid. This is because schools cannot give direct athletic scholarships to D3 athletes. You might earn a financial aid package that reflects your athletic accomplishments, but it will not be tied directly to your athletic career.

Key difference between D3 and D1 & D2

The key difference here is that if a D3 athlete decides to quit the team, they will still receive their financial aid money. So, although the sum will be significantly less than they could expect for D1 or D2 athletics, it does not hinge on their participation in a sport. For athletes who are unsure whether they want to continue playing through school, D3 could be a great option. You don’t want to end up in a spot where you are unable to quit because your financial aid relies on it.

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Recruiting systems vary based on each system. D1 athletics usually start recruiting as early as sophomore year. On the other hand, D2 athletics usually begin recruiting in junior year, and sometimes continue into senior year. D3 athletics usually only begin recruiting during senior year. This may vary by school, and some schools have more intensive recruiting resources than others.

It may be that some D2 or D3 students begin recruiting local talent as early as sophomore or early junior year. Oftentimes, colleges try to prioritize recruiting talent in their region. So, you might find a few D2 or D3 schools scouting games earlier on in your high school years.

Athletic budget

As you might expect, athletic budgets vary based on the intensity of the program. D1 schools have by far the highest budgets, and they typically decrease for D2 schools and even more for D3 schools. But what does that change in budget mean? Here are a few factors that will change based on your school’s budget:

  • Stadium size and quality
  • Prestige and experience of your coach
  • Training equipment quality and availability
  • Resources for travel
  • Coaching staff and physical therapist availability

Likelihood of landing a spot on the team

D1 athletics are by far the hardest sport to land a spot on. According to data from the NCAA, in 2020, 7.3% of varsity high school football players went on to play college sports, and only 2.9% of those went on to play D1. About 3% of wrestlers went on to compete in college, and 1% went on to compete in D1. So, we see that typically about one third of the students who continue competing in college make D1.

In this study through the NCAA, each division took about a third of the students who went on to compete in college. This means that if you are in that slim percentage of people going on to compete in college, you’ll also have to be in the top 33 percentile to compete in D1, middle 33 percentile for D2, or bottom for D3. But remember – even if you qualify to compete in D1 or D2, you could choose to compete in D3 if you don’t want to commit so heavily to your sport.

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Your schedule will be based almost entirely around your athletics. This means that you’ll be training intensively throughout the whole year, and you might even need to take summer school to ensure you’re meeting academic requirements. You’ll travel a lot and constantly prioritize athletics over other responsibilities. During the off-season, you’ll spend most of your time training or making up your academic requirements.


This can vary greatly based on your school and the conference in which you compete. You might have summers off, and you might not have to train as much during the off-season. You also typically won’t travel as much, as your conference will be more regional. However, you’ll still prioritize your athletics over most other responsibilities. It’s difficult to maintain any other substantial extracurriculars as a D2 athlete.


D3 students have by far the most freedom of the three divisions. You’ll be traveling much shorter distances, have a less intensive off-season, and you’ll have summers off. This can help you develop skills for a future career or pursue other interests while playing varsity athletics. It is still a big commitment and will cut into your free time significantly. However, it is a huge step down from D1 and D2 in terms of its requirements.

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You’ll face very competent opponents in any NCAA college athletic league. However, you’ll face by far the most talented competition in D1. The vast majority of players who have some intention of going pro end up in D1 athletics, so odds are, you’ll be playing against at least a few future pros. This is less common in D2, and almost never occurs in D3. However, anyone who secures a spot in these leagues is an accomplished athlete who will be exciting to play alongside or against.

Post-college athletic potential

If you are looking to go pro after college, D1 is definitely your best bet. But you should note that the numbers are daunting for going professional. For example, only 1.6% of college football players land a spot in the NFL. That takes into account D1, D2, and D3, so the numbers are definitely higher for D1 players. But despite D1’s intense competitiveness, it is still far from a sure bet to go professional. A select few D2 athletes also end up going pro, but D3 athletes almost never go pro.

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How to choose

When it comes time to choose a division, most players will choose the highest division that accepts them. For many, this is the right choice. Athletes are passionate about their sport, and oftentimes want to pursue it as far as they can. Especially if you intend to go pro, you should absolutely go with any D1 school that admits you. But if you are not interested in going pro, you might face a more difficult choice. If you gain admission to a D2 and a D3 school, it might be tough to decide which to choose. In this case, it’s a good idea to decide how big a role you want sports to play in your college life. Here are some questions to ask yourself:

  • Do I want to pursue my sport as far as I can possibly pursue it?
  • Am I interested in pursuing other extracurriculars in college?
  • Does it sound appealing to spend a significant amount of time traveling in school?
  • How much time do I want to devote to academics?
  • Do I want to commit to playing my sport for four years, or keep the option to quit and maintain my financial aid?
  • Is better equipment and coaching staff a big factor for me?

In asking yourself these questions, you’ll be able to make an informed decision about the league that’s right for you. Good luck out on the field, champ!

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Frequently asked questions about being a D1, D2, and D3 Athlete

Is D1 better than D3?

D1 is more competitive than D3, and typically comes with more tuition benefits. D1 athletes also have a better chance of going pro after their college career. That being said, D3 athletes have more flexibility and time to engage with their studies and pursue other extracurriculars. It comes down to a matter of preference; which is the right fit for you?

Do D1 athletes get paid?

In accordance with a new rule put in place by the NCAA in 2021, D1 student athletes can now receive compensation, though they cannot receive it directly from their school. Rather, they can get paid through their name, image, and likeness, or NIL. So, they can profit from jerseys with their name on it, or other products or services which monetize their NIL.

So, star D1 athletes stand to make a substantial sum of money from this agreement, but less prominent D1 athletes will probably not be able to monetize their NIL enough to get paid.

Is D1 or D2 better?

D1 athletes are more competitive, and typically have a better chance of receiving scholarships and going pro in their sport. That being said, D2 athletes have more time to focus on their studies and pursue other interests. It comes down to a question of which league fits your interests and skills better.

Do D1 athletes get a full ride?

D1 athletes in “headcount” sports are guaranteed a full ride. These sports are men’s and women’s basketball, football, women’s gymnastics, women’s tennis, and women’s volleyball. D1 athletes in other sports still have the potential to earn a full ride, but it is not all too common.

What is a D1 offer?

A D1 offer from a school means that they are offering you admission to their school as well as a spot on one of their Division 1 sports teams. If the sport is a “headcount” sport, it also means that they are offering you a full ride, which means that they will cover all education-related expenses, including tuition, room and board, fees, textbooks, and other costs.

What is athletic aid?

Athletic aid is a type of scholarship that is explicitly tied to your athletic performance at your school. In order to continue receiving your funds, you’ll have to continue to meet NCAA standards, follow a code of conduct set forth by your college coach and athletic department, and continue to meet certain strength and conditioning benchmarks.

Keep in mind, not all scholarships that relate to athletics are athletic aid. Some take a student’s athletic prowess into consideration when they are appointed, but they are not contingent on that student continuing to play. So, if you receive an offer for an athletic scholarship, be sure to clarify whether it is athletic aid or just a merit scholarship.