What's the difference between NCAA Divisions I, II, III and NAIA?

NCAA Division I
Division I member institutions have to sponsor at least 7 sports for men and 7 for women (or 6 for men & 8 for women) with two team sports for each gender. Each playing season has to be represented by each gender as well. There are contest and participant minimums for each sport, as well as scheduling criteria. For sports other than football and basketball, Div. I schools must play 100% of the minimum number of contests against Div. I opponents -- anything over the minimum number of games has to be 50% Div. I. Men's and women's basketball teams have to play all but two games against Div. I teams, for men, they must play 1/3 of all their contests in the home arena. Schools that have football are classified as Div. I-A or I-AA. I-A football schools are usually fairly elaborate programs. Div. I-A teams have to meet minimum attendance requirements (17,000 people in attendance per home game, OR 20,000 average of all football games in the last four years or, 30,000 permanent seats in their stadium and average 17,000 per home game or 20,000 average of all football games in the last four years OR, be in a member conference in which at least six conference members sponsor football or more than half of football schools meet attendance criterion. Div. I-AA teams do not need to meet minimum attendance requirements. Div. I schools must meet minimum financial aid awards for their athletics program, and there are maximum financial aid awards for each sport that a Div. I school cannot exceed.
  • Division I Scholarships:  Women’s teams get 15 full-scholarships.  Men’s teams get 13 full-scholarships.  In football and basketball, these colleges are required by NCAA rules to offer you full-scholarships.  It really is an all-or-nothing proposition.  They can bring you in as a scholarship athlete or a walk-on.  In other sports, most of the time these schools offer partial scholarships to athletes.  Instead of a set number of full scholarships, these programs have a set budget that they can use for their athletes in each academic year.  It depends on the program and the sport.  Many of these big schools usually have a large number of potential recruits.  The competition is fierce, unless you are a blue chip player you probably won’t receive an offer.
  • Division I Schools: Examples of High Major DI schools are:  University Michigan; University of Tennessee; Notre Dame; Vanderbilt University.  Examples of Mid-Major DI schools are:  Middle Tennessee State University; University of Tennessee-Chattanooga (UTC);  Kent State University.  Examples of Low-Major Division I schools are:  Tennessee State University; Gardner-Webb University; Kennesaw State University.

NCAA Division II
Division II institutions have to sponsor at least 4 sports for men and 4 for women, with two team sports for each gender, and each playing season represented by each gender. There are contest and participant minimums for each sport, as well as scheduling criteria -- football and men's and women's basketball teams must play at least 50% of their games against Div. II or I-A or I-AA opponents. For sports other than football and basketball there are no scheduling requirements. There are not attendance requirements for football, or arena game requirements for basketball. There are maximum financial aid awards for each sport that a Div. II school must not exceed. Division II teams usually feature a number of local or in-state student-athletes. Many Division II student-athletes pay for school through a combination of scholarship money, grants, student loans and employment earnings. Division II athletics programs are financed in the institution's budget like other academic departments on campus. Traditional rivalries with regional institutions dominate schedules of many Division II athletics programs.
  • Division II Scholarships: NCAA Division II basketball programs are allowed to give 10 full-scholarships.  Scholarships may be split up (unlike DI).  College coaches at the Division II level are able to offer scholarships in any sport that they host.  Schools are given a certain budget that is dependent on the school and the sport.  The coaches are free to use the money however they want.  Some coaches do try to use the money on Division I transfer and could end up offering them a full-ride because they are expecting an impact player.
  • Division II Schools:  Membership includes many smaller colleges and universities, The highest-ranking NCAA II teams are often of a higher caliber than the lowest-ranking teams of Division I, so it’s safe to say that there’s a lot of talent in Division II as well. Examples of NCAA Division II schools are:  Carson-Newman University; Tusculum College; Clayton State University; and Lincoln Memorial University.

NCAA Division III
Division III institutions have to sponsor at least 5 sports for men and 5 for women, with two team sports for each gender, and each playing season represented by each gender. There are minimum contest and participant minimums for each sport. Division III athletics features student-athletes who receive no financial aid related to their athletic ability and athletic departments are staffed and funded like any other department in the university. Division III athletics departments place special importance on the impact of athletics on the participants rather than on the spectators. The student-athlete's experience is of paramount concern. Division III athletics encourages participation by maximizing the number and variety of athletics opportunities available to students, placing primary emphasis on regional in-season and conference competition.
  • Division III Scholarships:  Schools at this level are not legally able to give any scholarships for athletic performance.  With Division III though, if you quit your sport, the price that you are paying for schooling in no way should increase.  So basically you are playing for the love of the game.
  • Division III Schools: Do not offer scholarships, so its recruiting tactics are limited and the level of play varies greatly from team to team. Examples of NCAA Division III schools are:  Maryville College; Covenant College; Sewanee; Rhodes College; Huntingdon College; Birmingham Southern College and Oglethorpe University.

NAIA (National Association for Intercollegiate Athletics)
NAIA schools offer a unique experience for student-athletes with benefits like close-knit communities and small class sizes.  The NAIA level is varied in that some schools compete on the same level as lower level NCAA DI schools or NCAA DII schools.  Some NAIA schools are more similar to NCAA DIII schools. Benefits of playing NAIA competition include:  Seasonal play and championship opportunities; Flexibility to transfer without missing a season of eligibility; Fewer recruiting restrictions; Focus on your education and character development; Opportunities for regional and national athletic recognition
  • NAIA Scholarships:   NAIA Division I schools can offer 11 full-scholarships, whereas NAIA Division II can offer 6 full-scholarships.  Your financial aid package usually consists of federal aid, state aid, academic/institutional money, loans and athletic money.  Most coaches at the NAIA level will give athletes at least a small amount of scholarship money.  However, there are still NAIA schools that do not give any money based on athletics.
  • NAIA Schools:   There are approximately 300 schools in the NAIA.  Examples of NAIA Division I schools are:  Trevecca Nazarene University; Lee University; Union University; and Vanguard University.  Examples of NAIA Division II schools are Bryan College; Milligan College; Tennessee Wesleyan College; and Indiana Wesleyan University.