Lette Berhe

Lette Berhe

NAIA vs NCAA: College Sports for International Students

When most people think of college sports, they think of “March Madness” or schools like Notre Dame or Harvard. The reason being that these are the universities and teams whose tournaments are shown regularly on major sports channels. But these popular tournaments and images are only a portion of the college sports culture that actually exists in the U.S.

When most people think of college sports, they think of “March Madness” or schools like Notre Dame or Harvard. The reason being that these are the universities and teams whose tournaments are shown regularly on major sports channels. But these popular tournaments and images are only a portion of the college sports culture that actually exists in the U.S. ​

The more popular image of college sports both in the U.S. and internationally comes from Division I schools in the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Yes, the NCAA and the Division I schools are the most popular. But if you are interested in becoming a student athlete in the U.S., you need to know that the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) is also an option.

How does NAIA compare to NCAA?

The NAIA and NCAA associations mainly differ in the following ways:

  • Association size and budgets
  • Regulations
  • Size of member schools
  • Number of international student athletes

Association size and budgets

One of the main reasons that the NCAA is more popular and well-known is due to size. The NCAA oversees more than 450,000 students in more than 1,200 universities. The NAIA, in comparison, has about 60,000 student athletes in about 250 universities.

Budget between the two associations also plays a big role. According to the NAIA, their schools receive a little more than 50% of the annual budget that NCAA Division II schools receive.

But the NAIA does not see this as disadvantage. For them this is a selling point that allows smaller schools with small budgets to bring a college sports atmosphere to their campuses.


The NCAA is well-known for its business-like structure, bureaucracy, and rules. A clear example of the difference of regulations between the NCAA and NAIA can be seen in the recruitment process.

For recruitment of high school athletes, the NCAA has strict guidelines that specify when and how students can be contacted in their each year of high school (i.e. freshman, sophomore, junior and senior years). On their website, you can find a recruitment calendar for individual sports, as well as the following message:

“The NCAA supports student-athlete well-being by promoting a fair recruiting environment that limits intrusions into the lives of student-athletes and their families.”

The NAIA, on the other hand, states on their website that they do not  “regulate the contact between a coach and a current high school athlete….What the NAIA does regulate are campus visits and tryouts.”

But why does this difference matter to you?

Because more regulations and bureaucracy means less flexibility. If you have made a last minute decision to study at a U.S. university but also want to play sports, having contact with a NAIA school will be much easier and more realistic to accomplish.  

Size of member schools

The idea behind “divisions” in the sports associations is that schools competing against each other should be as equal as possible in size and resources. While the similarity may not always be true, knowing your preference of school size can help you decide between an NCAA or a NAIA university.

Below is a general overview of the type of school and average number students in both the NCAA and NAIA divisions:



NCAA Division I School
(about 9,600 undergraduate students)


NCAA Division II School
(about 2,400 undergraduate students)

NCAA Division III
(about 1,700 undergraduate students)


NAIA Division I and II School
(about 1,700 full-time students)

As you can see, NCAA Division I and II schools are the ones that usually have bigger campuses and more students. If you are interested in attending a school with less students and smaller class sizes, you should consider lower divisions in NCAA or NAIA schools.

Number of international student athletes

Competition to be recruited as a student athlete for an NCAA school is very high. American athletes who wish to receive athletic scholarships begin to train and work towards this goal at a very young age. Although it is possible for international students to be recruited, those who have not dedicated themselves to their sport may not be at the same competitive level as American high school students.  

Not everyone can be the best at their sport, so if you reflect on how much time and dedication you have put into the sport you play and think that it may not be enough don’t be discouraged. This is when you should really consider the lower divisions in NCAA or trying out for NAIA schools.

Which is better, NAIA or NCAA?

As mentioned earlier, the most competitive high school athletes are recruited for NCAA Division I schools straight out of high school. But NAIA Division I schools are comparable to NCAA Division II schools. Not only that, but in the “off-season” you may sometimes have the chance to play against NCAA Division I schools.
If you are interested in applying for an athletic scholarship straight out of high school, here are a three things you should consider.

Your Sport

In the U.S. the majority of TV exposure and attention is given to football and basketball. But, as you may know, these are not the only sports that exist and that have opportunities to receive scholarships or even to go professional.

If you are interested in the school culture that revolves around your sport (that is not football or basketball), NAIA schools can be a great option. Because they are smaller, this often pushes for more student engagement in other sports events.

Your Grades

Sometimes, with all the excitement and glamour that is college sports, people forget that you are officially astudent athlete. This means that academics will play a role in eligibility during the recruitment process and during the season.

The NCAA and NAIA differ in academic eligibility for high school recruitment, but what they do have a common is the following:

  • ​A minimum GPA of 2.0 
  • A minimum SAT score

Although they share the minimum GPA, an eligible SAT score differs between the NCAA and NAIA.

  • The minimum SAT score for the NCAA is based on sliding scale. This mean the lower your GPA, the higher your minimum SAT score will be.
  • For the NAIA, there is only one minimum SAT score.

Your Dream

If your dream is to play for an NCAA Division I school, you should know that there is more than one way to get there. Although a lot of recruitment is done from the high school student population, college scouts also keep their eyes out on NAIA schools and lower division NCAA schools.

As an international student, it can be difficult to get recruited straight out of high school. But if you play a lower division or NAIA division, the possibility exists for you to be recruited by an NCAA Division I university. What this means is that you would transfer and finish your degree at your new school.

If you are interested in learning more about your chances of receiving an athletic scholarship, contact us today for a free consultation!

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