How the NCAA works

Edited by Amy Wimmer Schwarb  //  Illustrated by Arnel Reynon
With reporting by Brian Burnsed, Brian Hendrickson, Michelle Brutlag Hosick, Greg Johnson and Rachel Stark


Think you know the NCAA?

Perhaps you understand your cog in the machine and how it helps to power the system most relevant to you. Maybe, as an athletics director, coach, compliance officer or student-athlete, you understand how you relate to the broader process. But how do all of those cogs work together to advance college sports? How does your division interact with the entire Association? And who is making all those decisions, anyway?

Millions are interested in college sports; few understand the intricacies behind them. What follows is the story of how 1,098 schools, more than 100 conferences, tens of thousands of athletics administrators and nearly half a million student-athletes come together to make the NCAA work.



Each division governs its day-to-day needs, but on broad issues that affect college athletics
as a whole, the NCAA Board of Governors and a collection of committees set the course for
the Association

While each NCAA division is empowered with setting its own rules and operating guidelines, some topics rise to a level affecting college sports as a whole and need a coordinated voice to guide the Association in a unified direction. For those situations, a group of committees comprising representatives from all three divisions makes recommendations that can impact the entire Association — whether a small, private Division III school or a national champion Football Bowl Subdivision program — equally.

The Association-wide committees work collaboratively with each division’s governance bodies to recommend legislation. These committees explore issues impacting sports rules changes, the health and safety of student-athletes or opportunities for women and minority groups in college sports, and recommend changes to the appropriate legislative groups.

The NCAA Board of Governors, the highest-ranking committee in the Association, can implement policies by which all three divisions must abide. When the NCAA stopped allowing schools to host championships if their state governments displayed the Confederate flag, it was through a Board of Governors policy change.

Changes in legislation, however, require each division to take action. The Association-wide groups propose changes to the committees in each division, which then debate and vote on the proposals through their legislative processes.

Division I

With differing missions and budgets, these schools compete at a high-profile level

When people think about college sports, they most often think about Division I. Its teams are usually the ones broadcast on television, they have the highest profile, and they frequently are subjected to public scrutiny.

The division is home to a wide range of schools with varying missions, admissions standards and athletics budgets.

It includes some of the most highly selective universities in the country, and others with open admission.

Despite the differences, Division I schools share a commitment to the well-being of student-athletes, to creating sound academic standards and promoting fairness.

Led by the overall strategic vision of the Division I Board of Directors, composed mostly of university presidents, the Division I governance structure provides autonomy for the 65 schools in the Atlantic Coast, Big Ten, Big 12, Pac-12 and Southeastern conferences to vote on rule changes in specific categories. The rest of the division is then free to follow those adopted rules.

When governing itself on issues outside the areas of autonomy, though, Division I operates much like the other two divisions: Representatives serve on NCAA committees that determine the division’s direction and develop legislation. Members of the Division I Council vote on these proposals. Both processes often work together to reach a positive outcome for college athletes.

Division II

The division offers athletics scholarships and limits competitive and practice seasons to improve balance with student pursuits

The 308 colleges and universities in Division II share a commitment to providing college athletes equal growth opportunities in academics, athletics, and campus and community involvement.

Division II schools generally spend less money on athletics than Division I schools and operate on a partial-scholarship model, in which more than 60 percent of the 122,000-plus Division II athletes receive some athletics-based financial aid. Full scholarships that cover all of a college athlete’s expenses are uncommon in the division; often college athletes, like the rest of the student body, use a mix of academic scholarships, student loans and employment earnings to fund their education.

Division II prides itself on creating unique championship opportunities. It is the only division to host championship festivals, where multiple championships are held in the same city over several days. During these championships, teams participate in community engagement efforts, a key component of Division II. One in every 8.8 student-athletes earns the chance to compete for a national title, the most opportunities per student-athlete in the NCAA.

Division III

Athletics complements academics, and scholarships are based on merit and financial need

Because its mission is to ensure student-athletes have a well-rounded college experience, Division III is the lone NCAA division that doesn’t permit athletics scholarships. The athletic experience is designed to complement time spent in the classroom and pursuing other activities – some related to coursework, others extracurricular.

Roughly 75 percent of Division III student-athletes receive some form of academic grant or need-based scholarship. They have the same access to financial aid as the rest of the student body.

Access to competing in national championships is also important to Division III, where one of every 6.5 teams competes in the NCAA postseason. Division III is home to 190,000 student-athletes – the most in any division – who can earn the opportunity to compete in 28 Division III national championships.

The division’s philosophy and the rules that implement it are set by members hailing from the roughly 450 schools and more than 40 conferences.

Download the How the NCAA Works - Division III Infographic (pdf)