Our Head of Coaching discusses the basics behind the US collegiate system in the first of a series on securing a US Sports Scholarships.

Some of you will know that I am the Head of Athletics for US Sports Scholarships.  My focus here is to help athletes to secure either fully or part funded places at US universities and colleges to allow them to study there whilst pursing excellence in their athletic pursuits.

Clearly, my sporting interest are in the areas of Track and Field but I can connect readers with representatives who can help across the board in other sporting disciplines.

This short article introduces you to the structure of the US college system and socialises the structure of the sporting regimes that underpin college track and Field activities.


As a starting point, there are more than 3,700 accredited post-secondary education institutions in the USA and the term ‘College’ is used as a generic term to describe them all.  However, keeping it simple, there are several categories of college that include:

  • Junior (or Community) Colleges where their focus is on awarding associated degrees after completion of two years of full-time study
  • Colleges who award a bachelor’s degree at the completion of four years of full-time study
  • Liberal Arts Colleges that are typically, privately controlled and offer studies in humanities, social sciences, maths and natural sciences, rather than technical or professional subjects
  • Universities who generally offer a broad range of both undergraduate and graduate degree programs.

It should be noted that as in other countries, Institutions can either be public or private and there really is no distinction in quality between the two. However, Private institutions will usually charge higher tuition fees.

As stated above, a Bachelor Degree course requires four years of study in the USA rather than the three we are used to in the UK and other English-speaking countries. The first two years of study focus are general foundational subject matter for study with the remaining two years focuses on the principal area of study.

USA Junior (or Community) Colleges provide the first two years of general or foundational college education. On completion of these first two years, a student can transfer to a ‘four-year school’ to complete a full Bachelor degree. Students may also be able to transfer your studies to a university elsewhere in the world assuming that the course chosen supports equivalency of study.

The Collegiate Sport System

With the starting point of understanding the different style of colleges in the USA, explained, the next subject to focus on is the organisation of college sport.  There are three bodies that provide organisation of sport in the USA college system and they each follow their own rules and regulations.  These are the:

  • National College Athletic Association (NCAA).

The NCAA governs four-year college and university members’ sporting programs.  This is the premier college competition in the USA and comprises three divisions (NCAA I, Il and III), with Division I being regarded as the most prestigious. Both Division I and Division Il schools are able to offer athletic scholarships. Division Ill schools cannot offer athletic scholarships. However, they can offer other forms of financial assistance.

Some of the most prestigious colleges in the USA are members of the NCAA.  Colleges such as Harvard, Duke, Stanford and UCLA are well known university members. It is important to note here that whilst an athletic scholarship can assist with the cost your attendance at these colleges, a student-athlete must meet the academic requirements of the college first and foremost.  So, if you are an exceptional scholar and athlete, this may be your starting point.

  • National Junior College Athletic Association (NCJAA).

As discussed above, Junior or Community Colleges offer two-year courses and their competition is governed by the NJCAA. NCAA Colleges compete in one of three divisions, and each division has regulations about what scholarships they can offer:

  • Division I may offer full athletic scholarships
  • Division II limited to awarding tuition, fees, books and study materials
  • Division III are not able to provide financial assistance to athletes

Currently, there are 510 institutions that are members of the NJCAA and the website has a comprehensive search function that allows you to find details of each member college.  If you enter an NJCAA school as a student-athlete, it is mandatory that you must stay at the school for two years. However, if a student then transfers after two years, they may be eligible to be a student-athlete for two more years at a four-year institution.

If a student enters an NJCAA school as an academic student without an athletic scholarship, the student can transfer after one year, which means they have three years left of NCAA eligibility since standard NCAA eligibility is four years.

  • National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

There are some 300 or so colleges compete in NAIA competition, which has fewer recruiting restrictions and an easier application process than the other competitions set out above. NAIA schools are four-year schools and there are two divisions.  The vast majority of NAIA colleges offer athletic scholarships.

Useful links

U.S Community Colleges by State- Complete list by State- A must read for all students. (applyingtoschool.com)

A-Z list of accredited US Universities & Colleges (4icu.org)

US Liberal Arts Colleges by State

An A-Z List of U.S. Colleges and Universities – The Edvocate (theedadvocate.org)

NCAA.org – Official Athletics Website