sports divisions

American universities provide opportunities for elite athletes from outside the U.S. to pursue their university degree while continuing to train and compete at a high athletic level, an opportunity not possible in many other countries.

Recruiting athletes from outside of the United States is a growing trend in college athletics as international student-athletes play an increasingly prominent role in NCAA competition.  For coaches, who must recruit talented athletes in order to be successful, the pressures to win, and the penalties for losing, are exacting.  Many university coaches’ jobs are predicated on the strength of their programs, causing them to recruit the best talent they can find, in many cases from the international pool.

Evidence of a worldwide search for talent is found in the 17,653 international student-athletes that competed in NCAA competition during the 2009-10 school year, a large increase from the just under 6,000 that competed a decade prior.  Among Division I universities, over one-third of the male and female athletes in both tennis and ice hockey, and over one-eighth of male and female golfers, were born outside of the United States. In addition to increasing participation numbers, international athletes have dominated in individual sports like tennis, soccer and golf, and led teams to championship performances 

The process by which a student athlete is considered for a sport scholarship can be a lengthy and unfamiliar one for international students.  Unlike academic scholarships whereby one simply submits an application indicating an interest in receiving funding to study at a university, prospective student-athletes must engage in a highly-regulated recruitment process.

Sport scholarships are granted by the university athletic department.  Athletic directors and coaches play a central role in award decision-making. Scholarships are generally awarded for the following sports: baseball, basketball, rowing, cross-country, fencing, football, golf, gymnastics, ice hockey, indoor track, lacrosse, skiing, soccer, softball, swimming and diving, tennis, track and field, volleyball, water polo, women’s field hockey and wrestling.

Scholarships are provided on a yearly basis, generally renewable for four years, the normal time required to complete a US undergraduate degree.  Award amounts vary and can be anywhere from a few thousand dollars to full funding.

Importantly, while playing for a college team on scholarship can pay for the cost of earning an undergraduate degree, you do not attend university solely to play your sport.  Students with sports scholarships must be working toward an undergraduate degree (in any field offered by the university).



Athletic associations govern college sports and set rules regarding scholarships and athletic recruitment. There are a number of associations that colleges or universities can join, most notably:

  • National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) – There are over 900 member universities and 250+ provisional members classified within three NCAA divisions (Division I being the most competitive).  Athletic standards are high and the level of competition is intense. Only students with the very highest standard of ability tend to be recruited.
  • National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) – There are around 350, mostly smaller colleges in the NAIA, organised by districts. The level of athletic ability is still high, although the standard is not generally as high as for NCAA teams.
  • National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA) – Member colleges are accredited two-year institutions. The NJCAA is also comprised of three divisions, with scholarships offered only at the Division I and II levels.  Division I colleges may offer full scholarships, and Division II may offer partial scholarships (tuition or fees and books).


Students hoping to be considered for a sports scholarship must meet normal university/college admissions requirements and continue to obtain satisfactory grades at university in order to receive and retain their scholarships.  The athletic associations set their own minimum academic requirements, including minimum admissions test scores, for competing students:

National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA)

Five or more different academic subject passes at GCSE grades A-E or Scottish Standard grades 1-7 including Maths, English, Science and Social Studies (History, Geography etc.) with an overall average of grade C or 3.

The NCAA applies a sliding scale for the minimum SAT scores that are required for acceptance to NCAA Division I colleges. This will depend on your average academic grade. The higher your average academic grade is, the lower the minimum SAT score required.  

National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA)

C or 3 grade average overall in GCSE subjects, Scottish Standards, or an alternative qualification such as GNVQ or GSVQ if the school authorities can confirm that his/her marks were in the "Top Half" of the class.

A student must have a minimum score of 18 on the ACT or 860 on the SAT (if you take the SAT more than once, combining scores is NOT acceptable) to compete at a NAIA institution.

National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA)

Talented individuals who do not qualify for either of the above may be able to gain admission to a junior college. Each college will set its own entrance requirements.  Only 25% of scholarships at a junior college can be given to international students.
NJCAA colleges in general do not have a minimum passing score for the SAT although individual colleges may set one.