I remember being in my senior season of high school when our varsity team embarked on a road trip to Kentucky for a three-day tournament. Wondering how we would kill time in-between games, the coaches grabbed our attention by announcing that we would go watch a college basketball practice at a nearby campus. Since we weren't staying too far from the University of Kentucky, many of us had high hopes that we would stop by and get a look at the Wildcats in action. Wrong! We ended up visiting a smaller campus with a nice athletics facility. I'll keep the program's name anonymous but they did indeed hold a productive practice that morning in how well-structured it was. For me, at the time, it was cool to get a first look at how a college practice operated. However, leaving from the gym, I was dumbfounded to learn that the team didn't fall under NCAA Division I, II, or III.

The team I witnessed played in the NAIA, officially known as the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics. It is an entirely different governing body of college athletics. It is also completely separate from the NCAA. Honestly, as a 17 year-old back then, I had no clue about the NAIA. When speaking of the college basketball world, most of us tend to only discuss the NCAA divisions. However, with the NAIA's ability to give scholarships and its high levels of competition, one may question why more recruits do not tend to focus on the NAIA. Personally, I feel it ties into a lack of truly knowing about the association. While I played my college ball at the NCAA Division III level, I've gained a better understanding of the NAIA through conversations with others and my own research.

Some Quick Facts

Per the association's official website, more than 65,000 students participate each year in NAIA athletics, earning over $600 million in scholarships and chances to compete for 26 National Championships.[1] In all, over 250 colleges/universities and 21 conferences make up the association, as of 2018. NAIA basketball has been around for quite some time now, dating back to 1937 when the late Dr. James Naismith and others formed the National College Basketball Tournament.[1] NAIA basketball grew out of that tournament and its men’s basketball championship currently remains the longest-running collegiate National Championship of any sport in the United States.

The NAIA can pride itself on being the 'first' of a few noteworthy events. Back in 1953, the association invited historically black institutions into membership; the first to do so. Nearly two decades later, in 1972, the NAIA began accepting members from Canada. This act made it the only international intercollegiate athletic association in North America up until 2009.[1]

A main distinction between basketball in the NAIA and NCAA involves Division III only falling under the latter. This goes for both men and women's basketball. Schools within both NAIA Division I and II compete in national championship tournaments, as the two divisions each have a total of 32 teams participating in the tournament.[1]

Scholarship Stuff

Here is where things get more intriguing. Most may know that the NCAA operates as a 'head count sport' in Division I basketball, as well as football. This results in an absolute scholarship limit; student athletes cannot exceed the number of available awards. For example, charts from this year, 2018, detailed a 15 full-athletic scholarship limit for NCAA Division I women's basketball; D2 programs held 10 available scholarships per each team.[2] When considering NAIA lady hoops, the limit shows as 11 athletic scholarships for NAIA D1 teams and 6 for D2s. On the men's side, the stats remain the same for NAIA divisions. In the NCAA, D1 men's programs have a slightly less number compared to the women's, with 13 full-ride scholarships on the table. D2s remain the same with 10 offers per team.[2] As most already know, D3 schools cannot offer athletic scholarships. Academic awards and grants can happen, however.

While NCAA D1 basketball, football, and a few others act as 'head count sports,' one won't find as many compared to 'equivalency sports.' These type of sports offer awards that can split into partial scholarships in any proportion, as long as it does not exceed the maximum amount allowed.[2] In the case of the NAIA, ALL of the association's athletic programs fall underneath the category of 'equivalency sports.' A lack of full scholarships come with equivalency sports, however, as well as a top limit concerning the number of student athletes who earn such awards.[2]

Although full scholarships can be given from NAIA D1 and D2 programs, partial scholarships definitely stand as more common. Still, studies express that 90% of NAIA schools offer scholarships, while athletes receive an average of $7,000 of financial aid.[3] In addition, a yearly estimate of $450 million emerges in athletic scholarships awarded. Once the athletes arrive on campus, they have the opportunity to increase funding, which will be dictated from how well they perform in the classroom and on the court.[3]

Eligibility Process

Obviously, before any player can step foot on the court, he/she must meet all eligibility requirements. While this process in the NAIA went along in a very simple routine for years, a major change came in September of 2010 when the association revealed their new Clearinghouse website.[4] Now, athletes must go to the site and submit certain personal information, test scores, and transcripts to reach eligibility status.

One might notice how NAIA Clearinghouse shows similarity to the NCAA's own one. However, the two distinguish by certain requirements. The NCAA uses a sliding scale that allows athletes to get a minimum score on their standardized tests as long as they achieve a high GPA. Meanwhile, the NAIA requires only that you meet two of their own requirements, which includes:[4]

  • a minimum score of 860 on the SAT
  • a minimum of 18 on the ACT
  • finishing in the top half of graduation class
  • maintaining a GPA of 2.00

Other differences involve the NCAA permitting athletes to combine their best overall results between multiple standardized tests into one composite score, whereas the score that an athlete submits to the NAIA website must stem from that same particular test.[4] NCAA programs must show clear interest towards athletes in order to clear them for eligibility, while the NAIA lets anyone partake in the Clearinghouse as long as they pay the $60 fee ($85 for international students) and meet two of the aforementioned requirements.[4] Finally, the NAIA does not require athletes to be placed on an Institutional Request List.


This particular facet of NAIA sports probably differs the most from other athletic associations. It may surprise some to learn that the NAIA has no recruiting calendar; athletes and coaches can communicate year-round.[1] Also, there's no limit to how many times or in what form discussions can take place. The association's philosophy includes an emphasis on developing strong relationships between coaches and players so, as a result, 'students can fully explore what NAIA schools have to offer them both athletically and academically.'[1]

Athletes seeking to increase their stock should look into the direction of the annual NAIA Showcases. The NAIA has another 'first' in being the only college athletics association to offer events like these for prospective student-athletes to perform in front of league coaches.[1] This does not apply only to men/women's basketball, but football, baseball, and soccer as well. The showcases typically act as one-day events. Along with the performance opportunity, prospects also can learn information about the association, eligibility rules, and also personally meet with various NAIA coaches.[1] The showcases have occurred for four years now and directly connected more than 3,500 prospects and their families with NAIA coaches thus far. The most recent showcase took place earlier this year back in Lake Wales, FL, near the end of June. Those interested can learn more information from the showcase's official website, NAIAShowcase.com.

School Life

Being the smaller association when compared to the NCAA, the NAIA also proves to have smaller institutions, specifically their private 4-year colleges.[3] As I mentioned earlier, 250 men's basketball programs compete in the two NAIA divisions, a stark contrast when analyzing the 992 schools with NCAA basketball programs (in all three divisions).[3] I guess you could say that NAIA schools best compare to NCAA D2 and D3 schools when it comes to how the players go about their daily lives trying to balance time as student-athletes. While it might not operate as the same lifestyle as players on big time NCAA D1 rosters, an ample amount of sacrifice comes along with being a college athlete. Dedicating time to classes, individual workouts, weight lifting, study halls, film sessions, etc. all come into play for NAIA athletes just as they do for anyone else performing at the next level.

Many tend to compare the top NAIA schools to NCAA D2 ones. Also, a lot of talk has surfaced pertaining to the rise in the competition level for NAIA schools. In the case of most small schools, the level of competition differs in the talent pool, not how good the best athletes turn out to be.[5] In this contemporary society, with advances in technology such as online profiles, video, social media platforms, etc., NAIA schools are taking bigger steps in their recruitment. They now focus on a larger pool of athletes than they used to.[5] The result: an increased level of competition in its talent and range.


At the end of the day, the NAIA does not have a central database like the NCAA. Who knows if that will ever change. However, with the accessible recruitment, scholarship opportunities, less rules/regulations that come with the NAIA, the association undoubtedly can give athletes a handful of benefits in addition to having a career after their high school years. I've grown to learn how former overseas players attended NAIA programs. The schools operate in very similar way to the NCAA's style and should receive more recognition. In talking to my basketball peers, we've all reiterated this before: 'at the next level, basketball is still basketball.' It doesn't matter whether you're in the NCAA, NAIA, NJCAA, or whatever else. It's a different animal.




For athletes and families, I hope this helps open some eyes about the NAIA if their programs come calling. If one's goal centers on achieving an athletic scholarship, this definitely serves as an alternate route! #NAIAhoops



[1] 'NAIA ' National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics.' NAIA.org. https://www.naia.org.

[2] 'College Athletic Scholarship Limits.' ScholarshipStats.com. https://scholarshipstats.com/ncaalimits.html.

[3] 'NAIA vs NCAA.' AAUConnect.com. https://aauconnect.com/naia-vs-ncaa/

[4] 'NAIA Rule Change'Athletes Must Now Register With the NAIA Eligibility Center.' AthNet.net. https://www.athleticscholarships.net/

[5] 'What is the NAIA and what does its schools have to offer athletes'' USAToday.com. https://usatodayhss.com/

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