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College Recruiting for the Elite Athlete

Athletics versus academics

What really sets schools in Division I apart from their Division II and III counterparts is the greater emphasis on athletics over academics:

  • Division I (athletics are a priority): Athletes train in their sport throughout the year and compete and travel during at least half the academic year. The athletics department generally offers academic support via study halls and tutors to help students balance their academic and athletic schedules. But student-athletes at Division I institutions can expect the demands of their sport to equal or exceed the demands of academics, and they generally view their athletic participation as their primary or sole extracurricular activity.

  • Division II (community-focused balance of athletics and academics): Athletes at Division II schools are often commuter students or students focused on a vocational degree. Their sports involvement is generally confined to competition against other regional institutions.

  • Division III (academics are the priority). Athletes at Division III schools, often selective liberal arts colleges (e.g. Williams, Amherst, etc.), generally compete in a more limited season. Though the competition may be as stiff as at a Division I school, the athletic department is funded like any other department at the institution and there is no formal academic support system for athletes. Academics have clear priority at Division III institutions.

Finding the right balance

Between 3% and 11% of high-school athletes compete at the college level, so the recruiting process, regardless of whether one is talking about D-I, D-II, or D-III, is already a winnowing process. The important factor, for most elite athletes, should not be the elusive scholarship, which may crop up or disappear regardless of division level. Rather, students and parents should assess optimal size and type of institution, the student's academic interests and preparedness, the student's commitment to his or her sport; and the student's other extracurricular interests. As the recruiting season heats up for high-school juniors and seniors, keeping such priorities in mind can be a huge challenge.