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September 28, 2017

NAIA Scholarships Per Sport

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Unfamiliar with the NAIA? 

The National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics, or the NAIA, offers over $600M in scholarships every year. Founded in 1937, the NAIA consists of about 300 member institutions with approximately 65,000 student-athletes. In comparison to the NCAA, the NAIA remains a smaller association but offers bountiful opportunities to athletes across the nation. Currently, they held 25 National Championships with 21 conferences. With NAIA schools being smaller or private colleges, they are roughly on par with Division III schools. 

However, unlike NCAA Division III, over 90% of NAIA schools offer athletic scholarships. On average, athletes receive $7,000 in financial aid.

The Foundations

In 1937, the NAIA grew from the men’s basketball tournament in Kansas City which has now become the longest-running event in college basketball. 

The NAIA leads the nation in innovative athletics; in 1955, it became the first collegiate athletics association to invite historically African-American institutions into its membership, as well as, the first to sponsor both men’s and women’s national championships in 1980. The NAIA continuously broke down barriers by fighting for equality and opportunity for all. 

In 2000, the Champions of Character reaffirmed its mission to build character through sports. The five core values created an inclusive environment for every student-athlete, coach, official, and spectator committed to the true spirit of competition. 

In 2010, the association opened the NAIA Eligibility Center to ensure equality by holding prospective student-athletes to academic and athletic eligibility. The deliverance of integrity guides the students’ success and promises a level playing field.

NAIA Philosophies 

The NAIA holds itself responsible for administering basic standards, set forth by its members, driven by safety, fair play, and character development. The NAIA’s member institutions possess the abilities and rights to make major operational decisions that guide and customize their athletics programs to meet their individual needs. Their mission is to “position member institutions to maximize Return on Athletics, ROA, and optimize the student-athlete experience”. Programs focus on high-level collegiate experiences for all students to develop skills on and off the courts.

Jim Abbott, Assistant V.P. for Intercollegiate Athletics and Director of Athletics at Oklahoma City University, stated, “I really feel that the NAIA provides needed opportunities for smaller universities that want to compete in intercollegiate athletics without getting lost in the shuffle of larger organizations. I valued the opportunities that the NAIA gave me as a student-athlete and continue to value the opportunities that the NAIA provides to today’s student-athletes.” 

Athletic Scholarships

The sports included and the number of scholarships for each individual NAIA team is:

  • 24 scholarships for football
  • 17 scholarships for basketball
  • 12 scholarships each for baseball, soccer, lacrosse, competitive cheer, and indoor track & field
  • 10 scholarships each for softball and competitive dance
  • 8 scholarships each for volleyball, and swimming
  • 5 scholarships each for cross country, tennis, and golf

For all of these sports, the NAIA schools grant equivalency scholarships meaning that the grants can be divided up between multiple athletes.

For example, the scholarships can be awarded to any number of baseball student-athletes. The 12 full-ride scholarships can be granted to 12 students, 24 half grant equivalencies to 24 students, or a mix. The NAIA schools can award these amounts as long as it does not exceed the full grant equivalency. Similar to most NCAA athletic scholarships, they are not guaranteed from year to year, so the coach renews them at their discretion. 

Academic Exemption

Academically gifted students can be exempt from these equivalency limits. These criteria include: 

100% of aid exempt for:

Continuing students with a 3.6 cumulative GPA, or are in the top 10% of their class; or entering freshman who achieve a 1270 SAT or 27 ACT, or 3.75 – 4.0 GPA

50% of aid exempt for:

Continuing students with a 3.3 – 3.59 cumulative GPA, or are in the top 11% – 25% of their class; or entering freshman with 1130 SAT or 23 ACT, or a cumulative high school GPA of 3.50 – 3.74, or a high school class rank in the top 11% – 25% of their school. 

These schools automatically divide multi-sport athletes’ aid between the number of sports they play whether in the NAIA or an NCAA sponsored sport. Aid for students who play at the junior varsity level do not count towards overall limits. 


The NAIA schools continuously increase their level of competition with positive growth in their talent pool. The athletes’ abilities compare to mid-to-high level NCAA DII schools. With technological improvements for online profiles and videos, NAIA schools recruit from a larger pool of worthy athletes. Also, the NCAA restricts coaches on contacts, unofficial, and official visits. While the NAIA coaches possess the freedom to contact high school prospects whenever, or as much as they need. 

Student-Athlete Experience

The student-athlete, a college student that aims to earn a four-year degree while continuing to play the sport they love, sits at the forefront of NAIA’s priorities. Their goals, desires, and ambitions guide the association’s decisions.  Of all athletic associations, the NAIA shows the largest growth opportunities for these student-athletes to pursue this goal. Their initiatives assist students in transforming into quality, character-driven adults through quality competition, Champions of Character training, coach/student mentoring, and National Championship opportunities. Athletes may earn athletic and academic aid; the average full-time enrollment for NAIA schools sits at 1700 students for an inclusive, homely feeling. About 81% of the schools are private institutions with 65% being faith-based institutions if that fits your interests. With the encouraging and supportive nature, 17% of student-athletes continue to play post-season as well. 

Return on Athletics

The NAIA enhances the returns on investments made to the individual athletics departments backed by research including increases in primary return, recruiting, and retention of student-athletes. Schools offering financial assistance can name it academic, leadership, or athletic aid to help the student; the rules allowing unlimited coach interaction foster recruitment and retention. The overall student-athlete participation growth rate for the last five years stands at 30% compared to NCAA DII schools at only 16%, due to exponential growth in NAIA programs. More student-athletes are able to play due to junior varsity teams, and NAIA schools provide national recruiting assistance for endeavors after college. With fewer staffing, reporting, and compliance requirements, the schools allocate the funds towards improving their athletic programs. Overall, the NAIA operating costs per student including financial aid come to approximately $3000 cheaper than NCAA DIII schools that do not offer scholarships. The NAIA’s budget allows students more financial aid, room for growth, and opportunities than NCAA Division III schools. 

Offered Sports

The NAIA schools offer the main, well-known sports, as well as, up and coming sports such as bowling. The NAIA schools provide 14 sports on average with approximately 260 student-athletes at each school. 

Fallfootball, cross country, soccer, women’s volleyball

Winter:  basketball, swimming & diving, indoor track & field, wrestling, competitive cheer & dance 

Springbaseball, golf, softball, tennis, and outdoor track & field 

Invitationallacrosse, men’s volleyball

Emergingmen’s & women’s bowling

NAIA Showcase

The rules for recruiting in the NAIA largely differ from other associations. With athletes freely communicating with coaches, they explore the benefits of both academic and athletic programs within the school. The NAIA permits each student to two days of tryouts, not required to be consecutive, at the prospective schools; the school may provide lodging, meals, etc. The NAIA Showcases foster essential personal relationships between the coaches and athletes, unlike any other association. Positive interactions follow-up with visits to the schools, and onsite offers. 

Champions of Character 

Launched in 2000, member colleges and universities commit to character through the professional development of coaches, athletic staff, and student-athletes. Staff must take the online Character-Driven Coaching courses, and many students follow suit to learn about character education to guide them on and off the field. The Live 5 series of courses revolve around the Five Core Values- Integrity, Respect, Responsibility, Sportsmanship, and Servant Leadership. The NAIA bases the Champions of Character principles on professional conduct and healthy competition. Hospitality and game management follow these principles; the NAIA tracks the school’s progress with the Character Scorecard and recognizes achievements in training, promotion, and conduct in competition. Champions of Character also reaches out to high school and youth sports throughout the nation.

Eligibility Center

More than 30,000 students register every year to gain exposure to NAIA opportunities. The fee to register is only $80 for students coming directly out of high school. High school students have 3 aspects to focus on for NAIA eligibility: GPA of 2.0 on a 4.0 scale, top 50% of their graduating class, ACT of 16 or SAT of 860 on Critical Reading and Math. Applicants must achieve two out of these three requirements which are lower than NCAA academic standards.

Application Timeline for Colleges Hoping to Join NAIA

October 1st- Applications must be received by this date 

December 1st- Initial review begins determining if a campus visit will be conducted

During January- Webinar will be held with prospective school staff

During February- Membership Evaluation Team visits the campus

During April- Council of Presidents meets and notifies Institution within 10 days of decision

July 1st- If membership was approved, it becomes effective


If you have the choice between NCAA DIII and NAIA schools, weigh the options. Find your best fit. DIII colleges cannot offer athletic scholarships with their budgets, but 90% of NAIA colleges do. NAIA colleges invest more time and money into their programs with no restrictions for communications with coaches or strict regulations. The NAIA provides opportunities for dual sports athletes and junior varsity athletes to develop their skills. The NAIA stands upon character-driven beliefs, pairs mentors with students, and offers high-caliber athletics for a reasonable cost. If any of these aspects sway your decision, consider the possible opportunities with NAIA. These schools keep an almost universal budget across the NAIA, so these smaller colleges can compete with each other on a more level playing field. NCAA DIII schools allow a larger financial gap to maintain their athletic programs of more than $1 million.

“Since we’ve joined the NAIA … the members and quality of student-athletes have gone up while raising our academic profile and level of competition. It’s been a good fit for us,” said Dr. Margaret Huber, President of Presentation College after moving from NCAA DIII to NAIA. 

The President of Morningside College, Dr. John Reynders, stated, “The NAIA is the perfect fit for colleges that value a balance of academics and athletics. And for the student-athlete, the NAIA offers a highly competitive experience for those who want to experience the joy of competing and learn life skills in the process.” His school also transferred from NCAA in Division II to the NAIA after seeing the room for growth and development.

If this lifestyle of healthy competition and character-driven athletics appeals to you, register on the NAIA site to gain exposure to your future coaches. To learn more about the recruiting process, check out these tips from current collegiate coaches! 


Picture courtesy of Shutterstock



Updated on 8/3/19 by Jessica Lamb