Common ground in a big world

Division III's enrollment diversity on display -- Texas-Dallas, with over 15,000 undergraduate students, plays Milwaukee School of Engineering with under 3,000 undergrads.
Photography by Joe Fusco, 

By Ryan Scott

It is easy to look across the Division III landscape and see diversity. New York University has more than 25,000 undergrads; Bryn Athyn has less than 300. Tuition at a NESCAC school is around $50,000; in the WIAC it starts around $7,500. While you might find a first-generation college student from a public high school on a Liberty League roster, it’s much less prevalent than in the NJAC. Endowments vary widely – from $12 billion at MIT to schools of humbler means that operate essentially on tuition receipts from year to year.

What I have discovered, though, as I’ve spoken with coaches and players across the spectrum, is that they are largely interested in one thing: creating the best possible college experience for every athlete. That’s easier said than done – balancing athletics, academics, finances, and personal growth can be tricky – but it is clear to me that all the basketball players in Division III are doing the same things for the same reasons, even if it looks vastly different in different contexts.

I heard one UAA student and one from a public university in New York nearly echo each other word-for-word when talking about their college recruitment process: “I wanted to play basketball, but I was more concerned with getting an education.” While you can find student-athletes with a laisses-faire attitude towards education at just about any school, the vast majority are there to learn.

Yes, some players I spoke with do have professional basketball ambitions driving their decisions, but even those athletes understand that those careers are short and far from lucrative, recognizing how vital a good education is to their long-term future.

But even that phrase “good education” depends greatly on context. Friends and alums of highly selective, well-ranked academic institutions are rightfully proud of the quality education they provide, the opportunities their diplomas open for graduates, and the connections a vast alumni base can provide. At the same time these colleges tend to foster a culture all on their own, one that’s difficult to break into, even if students have the academic chops to do so.* In many cases, a smaller, more affordable school, closer to home is the best possible education for a student for whom college is a dream rather than an inevitability.

[*I hadn’t thought about it in this context when I read it last year, but doing research for this column made me think of Make Your Home Among Strangers by Jennine Capo Crucet – it’s a semi-autobiographical novel about a poor Miami student attending an elite private college. I think it illuminates some of the challenges such students and such schools work so hard to address and it speaks to both ends of the spectrum I tried to address here.  Plus, what’s more “d3” than a book recommendation in your sports column?]

I have to be careful here not to delve into stereotypes – as the coaches pointed out to me, basketball teams at both highly-selective and public institutions have a more diverse roster than they’re often given credit for.  It’s not always an either/or – many Division III schools attract students from both ends of the spectrum and everywhere in between. However, it is unique to Division III to have so many elite academic schools in the basketball mix alongside less selective and state institutions. For that reason, generalizations are appropriate so long as we understand they’re not universal descriptors.

As I had these discussions, three main areas of context emerged: recruiting, finances, and expectations. These are universal to every college student, let alone every college basketball player, but they are approached very differently at the extreme ends of our selectivity spectrum. Kids on those extreme ends very rarely end up in college together and I thought it might be interesting to give a little glimpse into the realities of someone (or some school) on the other end.

Recruiting is an obvious difference. A less-selective institution often has less competition for acceptance and rolling admission deadlines that allow an athlete to make a college decision sometimes even during the first week of classes. Students bound for more selective schools have to be locked in as early as November of their senior year. A UAA coach has to make recruiting decisions without the benefit of seeing a player’s senior season, while a SUNYAC coach can pick up late bloomers or recruit players who may not have been able to gain admission to a more selective school.

Everyone mostly does the AAU circuit, but it seems less important for those players headed to more selective schools – for one, senior year matters less for recruiting, and camps designed for high-academic students give them a better introduction to the types of schools they want to attend. Those camps are also a great opportunity for Division III coaches, with limited recruiting budgets, to see a self-selected pool of potential players from all over the country.

That pool is just larger for a less-selective school (as the name indicates). Coaches from highly selective schools have to work with essentially the same pool of students as the admissions office at large. As one Centennial coach said, “It’s almost pre-qualified or pre-ordained with the student athletes we deal with here, because of the family background or the [high] school they’re coming from, they expect to go to a school in one of three or four leagues – NESCAC, UAA, Centennial, Liberty, if not Patriot, Ivy – then they work from there to figure out location, cost, etc.”

At a less selective school, the coach can sell a player on the basketball program, even if they’re not a typical fit for the school. When there is less exposure to higher education, the US News & World report rankings tend to be less important. One public school senior told me, “I didn’t really care what school I went to, so long as it was strong in my major.” Academics were key, but things like campus environment and a strong basketball program can open students up to a wider variety of choices.

There is still competition, although state schools tend to be competing with Division I or II scholarships, while more selective schools are really competing with each other. “Everyone has advantages,” said one coach, “even the state schools, sometimes with bigger or better STEM programs. Everybody has a sweet spot – some wider than others – but you just have to find it."
One area where the lines between highly selective and less selective basketball programs is being blurred is with the rise of Honors Colleges – these are schools within public universities that are more highly selective and offer many of the benefits that a selective private school provides. These have traditionally been more a Division I, flagship campus program, but increasingly Division III schools are offering them as well, allowing coaches to poach athletes who might have been destined for a more traditionally elite school.

Paying for college is another big issue, although it surfaced in ways I did not expect. Financial aid is far more often a driver of decisions for students headed to highly selective schools. Public school tuition tends to be pretty similar, as do aid packages within the same state, so while finances might steer a student towards public over private, it is not a huge factor in choosing a specific school.
However, just because a prestigious private school has a $400m endowment, doesn’t mean they can offer unlimited financial aid. Need-based aid is constrained by budgets and merit aid really depends on the needs and philosophy of the institution. Even though there aren’t athletic scholarships in Division III, there’s some extreme competition over the general aid packages offered, and there’s basically nothing a coach can do to influence it.

Most selective schools now have the ability to get advanced guidance from both admissions and financial aid to estimate whether a player has a good chance to be admitted and how much they might expect to receive in aid. This helps students and coaches narrow down their options in recruiting, but when financial aid packages vary by $20,000 (or more… per year) from school to school, finances sometimes end up being a deciding factor.

Perhaps the biggest disparity, though, between students heading to more and less selective institutions is expectation. As the quote above begins to explain, students without a lot of family experience with college often just want a college degree and don’t have the resources to parse the differences that highly-selective schools use to sell themselves to recruits.

So much depends on what a high school offers in terms of counseling and support. The students I spoke with had a wide variety of experiences. One student, who ended up transferring, said “I was the first person in my family to graduate high school. It was mostly on me to get to college. My high school coach and my AAU coach mentored me in making decisions.”

For athletes, a lot of it comes down to coaches. One SUNYAC coach said, “We educate them a lot on the process. I don’t think the majority of our players come to us with knowledge about financial aid, FAFSA, even the application process. It’s frustrating when we walk through all the paperwork with them and then hear a ‘no,’ but it’s part of the process and we know it’s a benefit to the student wherever they go.”

Every student wants to find the right fit, but it felt to me that students with less family experience in education had more of a desire to find new experiences and push themselves into a different environment. Students bound for more highly selective environments are more likely to have had some of those boundary-pushing experiences already and be more prepared for the distance.

One coach commented, “Many of my kids have been at prep school and away from home for years. They understand what it takes to balance class and basketball on their own. The issues they deal with and the way I interact with them are completely different than the needs of my players when I was at a state school.”

Many people have an assumption that some players, even Division III players, have the unrealistic assumption that they can play professional basketball after college. While there are more and more opportunities for such athletes, they understand those are dreams more than hopes. Still, even for women athletes, where those options are non-existent, basketball can be a motivating factor for getting an education.

One women’s coach said, “There are some players in school only because we reached out to them about playing. What motivates them to do well in the classroom is basketball. Without basketball, I’m not sure they’d go to class. They get a degree via basketball. It’s not that after-college basketball that motivates them, but it is playing basketball.”

This echoes what I heard over and over again, even from players, seniors with the ability of hindsight: “[College] has helped me mature, take more responsibility, and develop greater success in life. You figure out who you truly are. It’s so hard to get a good job to make a living without a college degree.”

I heard much more about personal growth and development, maturity, from students at less selective institutions. Coaches, too, have stressed the importance of life skills training for students at public schools – using meeting time to bring in experts on maintaining good credit or improving job interview skills. At more selective schools, the coaches report most students coming with this kind of knowledge already in hand.

One coach with experience in both world noted, “Do you identify primarily as a basketball player or is basketball just a part of your large identity? High-academic kids can generally compartmentalize failure on the court and keep it separate from the rest of their life; public school student-athletes often have to learn that skill once they arrive.”

Another coach said, “I’ve coached at D1 and often it can feel like a right for those players to be in school. Our players here believe it’s more of a privilege to be here, to go to school here and play basketball – something not everyone gets to do.”

I got that same sense of understanding from students, that they recognize the opportunities they have. Wealthier students, with strong family connections, and the experience of a college prep high school understand the advantages they’ve been given. But so too do first generation students at a public college; even if their opportunities have been different, they still know and appreciate what they’ve been able to do.

One sophomore summed up the perspective I heard from every student regardless of context, “The academics are important, probably more important [than basketball]. If you get hurt or something happens, it’s the academics that will carry you through.”

One coach also spoke for the general impression I got in my conversations, “If we’re doing it right, we’re trying to find the right fit for every kid, even if that fit is at some other school.”
I know many Division III basketball fans may have had some experience or interaction that works counter to what’s been presented in this column. Certainly, with almost 900 programs, this attitude is not universal – however I feel even more confident now saying it is extremely representative of who we are as a division, and any contrary opinion is a true aberration, even if they’re part of a prominent program. The Division III spirit is alive and well across the country, regardless of context; I truly believe it’s what makes this the best kind of basketball in which to be involved. 

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Ryan Scot

Ryan Scott serves as the lead columnist for and previously wrote the Mid-Atlantic Around the Region column in 2015 and 2016. He's a long-time D-III basketball supporter and former player currently residing in Middletown, Del., where he serves as a work-at-home dad, doing freelance writing and editing projects. He has written for multiple publications across a wide spectrum of topics. Ryan is a graduate of Eastern Nazarene College.
Previous columnists:
2014-16: Rob Knox
2010-13: Brian Falzarano
2010: Marcus Fitzsimmons
2008-2010: Evans Clinchy
Before 2008: Mark Simon