The Division III experience: Building a balance between student and athlete

Graphic by Meghan Joyce

While many factors influence a student-athlete’s choice of college, the athletic experience offered by either Claremont-Mudd-Scripps or Pomona-Pitzer was likely an important one for each student-athlete at the 5Cs. However, as many student-athletes at the college level will find, athletics at the NCAA Division III level can be very different than at Division I, Division II, or NAIA levels, in a variety of ways.

One of the main differences between Division III and other athletic divisions is the fact that these institutions do not offer athletic scholarships.

“Being a [Division III] athlete is really special because there aren’t scholarships involved so everyone is here because they genuinely want to be,” CMS cross country and track athlete Abby Johnson SC ’21 said.

In addition to not allowing athletic scholarships, Division III institutions like those at the 5Cs focus their admissions on the students’ academic backgrounds, and they don’t weigh athletic prowess as highly as schools who give athletic scholarships.

“In the admissions process, as per the [Division III] principle, athletes are treated just like other students,” CMS interim athletic director Michael Sutton said.

However, this doesn’t necessarily mean recruited athletes at the 5Cs don’t have any advantage in admissions. Athletic coaches are able to identify certain athletes and refer them to the admissions department.

“A coach at our level is identifying to the admission team who will be a successful student-athlete in our program,” Sutton said. He also explained that coaches can typically give a prospective student-athlete a good sense of their chances of being admitted to the institution.

“Evidence of talent, athletic or not, is always welcome in the admissions process,” Pomona College Director of Admissions Adam Sapp added. “Ultimately, it’s the job of the admissions office to select the entering class that represents the best combination of intellectual capabilities, backgrounds, experiences, talents, and fit with Pomona’s education environment.”

In addition to the lack of financial assistance and additional resources for athletes at Division III schools, when these student-athletes arrive on campus, they are, by principle, students first and athletes second.

“There are more decisions made, more space carved out, more processes built around athletics at the Division I level than at the Division III level, but that also reflects the NCAA rules,” P-P Athletic Director Lesley Irvine said.

Division I and II athletes often receive more academic advantages, including increased flexibility with classes and specific academic resources for athletes, depending on the institution.

Division III institutions such as CMS and P-P do not offer any additional academic support for athletes, and it is often challenging for athletes to balance their time between class and athletics.

“Being committed to [the track team] means that you don’t schedule classes during practice times,” Johnson said. “I am struggling to find classes at Scripps that will go towards my major and will fit into that guideline.”

Johnson added that she feels under supported at Scripps in her athletic endeavors.

“On the Scripps campus in particular, I feel like athletics are not really appreciated or even acknowledged at all,” she said. “The Scripps solution to the student-athlete tension is to pretend that people aren’t athletes.”

While navigating the Division III student-athlete life can be challenging, it is ultimately often rewarding for the athletes and coaches involved. Division III sports give competitive athletes, who may have the ability to compete at a Division I level, the chance to assume an identity outside being an athlete.

“[Division III] provides a balance of the athletic experience and the athletic identity, but that is certainly not all that our athletes are and not all they want to be,” Irvine explained.

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