Many people (including college coaches themselves) are surprised when I tell them that 75% of all college teams do not compete at the Div. I level. That has a very specific impact on college-bound players because it means that 75% of those who go on to play in college will be competing at a Div. II, Div. III or NAIA program. (And this doesn't include the junior colleges.) There are numerous good reasons to play at any of these programs, yet parents, players and many youth coaches persist in the belief that if you can't play Div. I softball, why bother? If you talk to those young women competing for Div. II, III or NAIA schools, they'll give you lots of good reasons. So let's look at some of the myths as to why D-I is the only way to fly! Watching the Women's College World Series on ESPN shows you how good the competition at UCLA and Michigan and Alabama can be. It's pretty exciting. But remember, 64 teams out of 260 or so go to D-I regionals, and only 8 of those move on to the WCWS.
Families are often surprised when they hear that many D-II teams or NAIA teams beat D-I teams when they play them in the fall. And top D-III teams beat good D-II teams as well. One thing is certain. Not all teams are created equal at any level of competition. Just as there are D-III or D-II teams that struggle to be competitive, there are also D-I teams that do the same. Athletic funding really varies from school to school, and the commitment to hiring top-notch coaches, providing state of the art facilities, and so on, is just as likely to be present (or absent) at an NAIA school as it is as a Division I college.
Realistically, how many players will go on to professional careers in softball or make it to the Olympics? (Maybe 1 percent.) Dreams are great, but it's your life after college that college is supposed to be about. Where you get your degree, what kind of education you get, how good your grades are, and the completeness of your collegiate experience should determine what schools you consider, and not whether the team is D-I or D-III.
Many parents are somewhat surprised and disappointed to find out that there are D-I teams that are only moderately competitive, and that many D-I schools are not fully funded--e.g., instead of having 12 scholarships, they have 2 or 5 or 7. Yes, if you are recruited by a top D-I team, you may be offered more scholarship money than if you choose a D-II or NAIA program, but what if you're not necessarily a prospect for a Top 25 Div. I team? You might find that a Div. II or NAIA school puts together a better package based on academics or need or other factors than a small D-I school could offer you. While there is probably more money available overall at the Div. I level, the fact still remains that 75% of all college players will not be playing at D-I schools.
Something else you have to consider is what you want your college experience to consist of. Do you want to take part in student government, perform with the theater or music department, play another sport, do internships or research projects? It may be next to impossible to do any of this while competing at a nationally ranked D-I program. Are you thinking of graduate school, maybe law or medicine, after college? When you apply, they'll look at your GPA and your MCAT or LSAT scores. Softball experience will look nice on your resume, but it will not get you into a top law school. It really may be better for you to have a particular undergraduate academic experience instead of a certain athletic experience if you want to achieve your future goals.
Or perhaps you're at the other end of the spectrum. You're a great athlete who's being pursued by major university teams. But you have to work very hard to get C's and B's, and just getting into college will be a big achievement. While many D-I programs have excellent academic support systems, the demands of 65 or more games a year, conditioning, practices, road trips, etc., may make it difficult for you to succeed in the classroom without constantly feeling overwhelmed. You might want to consider a smaller school, where student-teacher ratios are 20-1, and where you will be helped to succeed by professors who know who you and can keep you on top of your academic game as well as your athletic one. You might play only 40 games a season, but be more successful and much less stressed!
I always recommend prospective college players go watch top D-III teams, strong NAIA and D-II programs compete whenever possible. They're often surprised by how good these teams are. And if they look good, and they want you, why not listen to what the coach has to say? Looking back five or six years from now, you might find that you played for a top team, got a great education, and thoroughly enjoyed every aspect of your college experience which included, but wasn't limited to playing softball and going to class!