US College Sports: Eligibility

Guides / USA

College sports are a big deal. For those with any connection to the world of US universities, this isn’t new information. However, if you are only just starting to consider the possibility of studying and playing sports on the other side of the Atlantic, you may be surprised at how much of a role they play at universities in the USA.

Here are a few facts to provide context:

Camp Nou, home to FC Barcelona, is the largest sports stadium in Europe, with a capacity of 99,354. The University of Michigan plays its home (American) football games at Michigan Stadium, with a capacity of 107,601. No explanation is needed as to why it’s known as “The Big House.”

The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), which regulates and oversees intercollegiate athletics and makes the rules and policies around college sports, have signed a $920m deal with broadcaster ESPN over the next eight years. That’s $115m (£91m) per year. In comparison, the broadcast rights for the world’s oldest football competition, the FA Cup, were recently sold to TNT Sports for £66m per year.

For most professional sports in the US, the college system acts as the equivalent of centres of excellence/academies/lower leagues across Europe. It’s the feeder to the glitz, glamour, and riches of the NBA, NHL, NFL etc. As such, the standard at the top tier of college sports is incredibly high, and even at the lower end, it remains quite impressive.

UK-based students with aspirations to apply to study and compete at this level at a university in the USA will, in most cases, need to be at county representation, at the very least, to be competitive. A strong commitment, hard work, and an ability to balance an academic workload alongside an intense sporting schedule are imperative. It certainly isn’t a part-time endeavour, nor should it be a simple decision to make on a whim.

Personally, I found life as a student-athlete to be an enriching experience. Training and competing at professional-level facilities and developing athletic abilities allowed me to learn so much about my character along the way. Resilience, collaboration, leadership, communication, and time management are just a few skills and qualities you can develop in this setting that can transfer into a professional setting later.

I can’t deny that while life-changing, the experience can also be challenging. You will hurt, you may cry, and even if you make it, you might feel like a failure and consider giving it all up. However, you can succeed with determination, and the experiences, skills, friendships, and memories will last a lifetime.

If you’ve made it this far into this read and are still keen, I congratulate you on the start of your journey.

It’s a long process, but the first step should be registering with the NCAA as a prospective student-athlete. This will give you access to important information regarding eligibility and the general pathway to US college sports, including the rules around recruitment, deadlines, structures, and potential scholarships.

College Sports Associations

Associations that oversee college varsity-level competition for men and women include:

  • The National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
  • The National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA).
  • The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA).

The NCAA is the largest and most well-known college sports association. When you watch college sports on TV, you’re most likely watching NCAA athletes. The NCAA oversees three levels of play:

Division I is the biggest and most competitive NCAA division; those colleges that compete in Division I typically offer scholarships, including full-rides, to their student-athletes.

Division II athletic programs are smaller and less competitive than those in Division I. Most student-athletes don’t get full-ride scholarships, but many get some financial aid.

Division III programs are the least competitive. Division III colleges don’t offer sports-related financial aid. Still, these universities want student-athletes and being an athlete can support your application to get into your preferred college.

If you were to join a club or a sports team, you may be required to meet a certain level or set criteria to be eligible. The NCAA eligibility rules work similarly but on a much bigger scale, like a giant club for college athletes in the United States.

The NJCAA and NAIA are athletic organisations that look after junior colleges and smaller, usually private, colleges, respectively. They have their own eligibility requirements but are typically less stringent than the NCAA regarding academic standards. They can offer very high levels of competition, especially at the top end, and scholarships can be significant. Student-athletes also have the opportunity to transfer between institutions, so it’s common for it to be seen as a pathway through which athletes go on to move to the NCAA after a year or two.

Here’s how it works in the NCAA:

Academic Eligibility: Student athletes need to have good grades and complete specific high school courses to be eligible to play sports in college. Think of it like needing to pass certain classes to join the school’s rugby team.

Amateurism: The NCAA requires student-athletes to maintain their amateur status. This means they can’t get paid to play their sport or make money off their athletic abilities before they enter college. It’s like playing for fun rather than as a professional. For example, a talented tennis player winning tournaments and prize money, as a result, would likely no longer meet their eligibility to play college tennis.

Eligibility Centre: The NCAA Eligibility Center (note the US spelling!) is the gatekeeper. It’s where student-athletes go to ensure they meet all the eligibility requirements. After registering with them and submitting academic records, they’ll determine if applicants are eligible to play sports in college. It’s like going through a checkpoint before moving to the next stage.

Sport-specific Rules: Different sports might have their own additional rules or requirements. Some sports will limit how much practice time you can have during the season.

Maintaining Eligibility: It’s not just about getting into college and joining a team; students must keep up with academic progress and follow the rules throughout college. In a nutshell, to keep playing sports in college, student-athletes have to remain in good standing with the NCAA requirements.

You need good grades, can’t get paid to play your sport, have to register with the NCAA, follow the rules, and maintain your eligibility throughout your college years.

Learn more about the NCAA/NJCAA/NAIA eligibility

  • NCAA Eligibility Center
  • NJCAA Eligibility Requirements – NJCAA
  • PlayNAIA – NAIA – National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (


Tom Whittaker

Educational Consultant, The University Guys