For more than a century, Division III sports programs have maintained a tradition of excellence by producing well-rounded student-athletes who embody the spirit of competition while becoming community and professional leaders. Some athletes have emerged as professional players and coaches following their Division III experiences, but often receive little attention for their college connections -- think of Jim Thorpe, who is remembered as being called the greatest athlete in the world, but less so for having played football and running track at a small school in Pennsylvania.
Division III student-athletes play college sports for reasons that go beyond guaranteed scholarships and extensive media coverage they could expect to receive at larger schools. These individuals recognize that the student part of their title always comes first, and they value the whole educational experience. But there are many additional elements that make Division III appealing to more than 170,000 participating student-athletes at 444 institutions.
The viewpoint of Division III student-athletes is that they want first and foremost the opportunity to develop themselves in mind, body and soul. Division III student-athletes seek to refine their skills and excellence both in the classroom and on the field. They seek long-term knowledge and improvement by keeping the perspective that school comes first.
For example, unlike Division I and II institutions, Division III members are prohibited from offering athletic scholarships. This restriction does not mean student-athletes lack possible financial assistance opportunities, however. Schools can provide merit scholarships based on academics and non-athletic co-curricular activities, which treats all eligible students equally. An audit process conducted by the Financial Aid Committee guarantees compliance with this goal. This method impresses student-athletes who prefer to compete for scholarships without having to deal with the more structured or intimidating terms dictated by assistance from other Division I and II programs. Additionally, these students know that they earned a scholarship for their accomplishments outside of sports and appreciate the recognition of their scholastic achievements.
The flexibility of Division III athletics that enables student-athletes to include time for many activities beyond the playing field impresses participants as well. Student-athletes often participate in additional athletic, intramural and club programs offered during the multiple sports seasons of each year. Because playing schedules are less extensive than other divisions, Division III student-athletes have the ability to engage in other extracurricular activities such as student government or artistic or cultural passions, or just relax off the playing field.
At the same time, Division III athletics are competitive and instructive contests. Student-athletes benefit from travel opportunities to compete and enjoy meeting their counterparts at sport events. The competitions provide student-athletes with leadership skills they can transfer and implement successfully in their everyday lives and employment. Student-athletes know when they are playing their games, they are representing their schools and feel responsible for reflecting their institutions' values and cultures. This experience, coupled with what they learn in class, provides Division III student-athletes with the preparation they need to assume leadership roles in their communities after graduation.
Towering above all of these attributes is strong graduation rates. Student-athletes in Division III schools for the entering cohort of 2005 (the most recent data available) graduated at a 68 percent rate, compared with the 62 percent rate of their student-body peers. (The data came from a sample of 128 Division III schools.) These results indicate Division III student-athletes truly believe education is their top priority.
This desire for balancing athletics with academics is what makes Division III sports unlike anything else available in higher learning. The college experience is an ideal time for students to uncover their passion and discover their potential. Division III student-athletes feel they achieve both of these goals in their endeavors. They recognize that the sacrifices they are making to play a sport teach them planning and organizational skills to incorporate into their learning processes and other aspects of everyday life.
Division III student-athletes find satisfaction in knowing they have had the opportunity to reach their personal best in and out of class. Beyond offering opportunities for athletic excellence, Division III schools provide the flexibility and knowledge these students need in order to become our next generation of professional and community leaders.
Dr. Debra M. Townsley is president of William Peace University (formerly Peace College), a private four-year university located in downtown Raleigh, N.C.