If you’re a fan of college sports, you probably know about the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).
As a parent of a prospective college athlete, you definitely know about the NCAA.
The high-profile four-year schools that make up this association—whose football and basketball teams sell out arenas and are broadcast into millions of homes—also have a place on many high school students’ college wishlists.
But are these campuses and teams really right for your student?
JUCO colleges ( junior colleges) are another option to consider.
What Does JUCO Mean?
Junior colleges (JUCOs) are what many people refer to as “community colleges.” Whereas four-year schools offer (at minimum) bachelor’s degrees and participate in higher-visibility athletic associations such as the NCAA and National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA), JUCOs typically offer associate degrees and have a lesser-known athletic association all to themselves: the National Junior College Athletic Association, or NJCAA.
In both academics and athletics, JUCOs are generally thought of as a step on the path to bigger, better things.
Mary Ziola-Vega, the founder of Thriving Athletes—a career counseling service for student-athletes—often recommends the JUCO route to clients who aren’t yet ready for the demands of a four-year school. Some have ineligible (by NCAA standards) grade point averages (GPAs) and low SAT or ACT scores; some lack the independence or skills needed to live away from home; but others simply need or want more time on the field or court than they are liable to receive in a larger program.
The JUCO route provides them with a means of prolonging their NCAA/NAIA eligibility.
“I tell them if they want to be a star of all-stars, and get ready to be at that level, go to JUCO,” Ziola-Vega says. “It’s a stepping stone for them to learn their skills, to get their skills more centralized to what coaches want. And for many JUCO athletic coaches, that’s their role: to take you from a JUCO to NCAA Division I or III.”
Does JUCO Use NCAA Eligibility?
NJCAA eligibility differs from NCAA eligibility in several key respects. For one, whereas the NCAA’s division-based eligibility requirements are consistent across member schools, JUCOs are allowed to set their own standards. Typically, these standards are far easier to meet than those of the NCAA, and students who fall short are sometimes offered special classes to meet the necessary qualifications post-enrollment. The high turnover rate in JUCO athletics (players are only fielded for two seasons) also makes member schools more willing and able to recruit students that fall short of NCAA eligibility.
“When you’re a kid who is a really great athlete, but not so great on education because of whatever happened in life, you go into JUCO,” Ziola-Vega says. “Guess what? You [transfer] into a Division I, II, or III schools [NCAA], they don’t even ask about that anymore. You’re just a transfer.”
Can JUCO Colleges Give Athletic Scholarships?
In short, yes. Like the NCAA, the NJCAA has three divisions of which DI and DII are permitted to award athletic scholarships.
DII JUCO scholarships may cover a student’s full tuition, books/supplies costs, and fees, while DI scholarships may cover these as well as room and board.
The key distinction between NJCAA and NCAA/NAIA scholarships is their availability.
Ziola-Vega uses NJCAA DI softball as an example: “Spring softball has 24 scholarships in junior college. That’s huge! They can give you a full ride, tuition, expenses—$250 for expenses—and you can get all that at a junior college,” she says. “Whereas, in a Division I, II, or III [NCAA] they don’t have full rides for softball!”
This makes the JUCO route an especially good choice for families and students who want, or need, to avoid taking on college debt.
Is JUCO Better Than D2?
Many people make the mistake of confusing division placement for skill when, in fact, these designations refer to the size and diversity of athletic programs. While one division may be more competitive, or receive more media attention than another, it is difficult (and often misleading) to judge individual schools and teams on this basis.
“To be competitive, you really have to check out every single school that you’re going to look at, and every sport, because it differs for every single college,” Ziola-Vega says.
“Football might be just a fun sport to them, whereas a football team in Texas is gonna be kicking butt and taking names because that’s the priority of the school.”
When Thriving Athletes asks a client to pick 50 colleges for a wishlist in their junior year of high school, NCAA, NAIA, and NJCAA schools are mixed together. This discourages students from discounting JUCO schools as last-resort options, and from treating them as interchangeable.
Can You Go to a D1 School From JUCO?
It is certainly possible to go from JUCO to D1. Ziola-Vega recommends that student-athletes hoping for recruitment by a larger program look at D1 JUCOs; this is the most competitive of the NJCAA divisions, and the most likely to place students in NCAA schools down the line. Parents should keep in mind, though, that this is no easy feat.
As exemplified by the JUCO-route, football star—and current quarterback for the Green Bay Packers—Aaron Rodgers, the students most likely to “go DI” from a JUCO school are those that display outstanding NCAA-level athletic talent in high school and are excluded from the association due to academic ineligibility or economic stress. Transferring into the NCAA from the NJCAA requires students to select a JUCO with a strong team (and committed coach) in their sport of choice.
Ultimately, though, as many as 80 percent of the students Ziola-Vega works with make the choice not to transfer—at least not into the NCAA—and instead shift their focus to academics and career prospects. If they do transfer to a four-year school, it is with a degree in mind rather than a team.
Ziola-Vega points out that there are 8 million high school athletes, but only 400,000 in the NCAA. She advises parents and coaches to let students pick the best school for their future, whatever they hope or intend it to be.
“I had an eighth-grader call me and tell me she’s gonna play at UCLA (University of California, Los Angeles) when she gets older,” she says. “I’m like, ‘Great! Let’s go for that. But if you don’t get to that, let’s look at all your options, because, again, JUCO is not that bad.’ If you use it as that platform that you want it for. It can be your platform for education or your platform for sports.”
JUCOs provide a versatile and affordable option for the vast majority of student-athletes, who, however talented and skilled they may be, are unlikely to make their living in sports post-graduation. These “99 percenters” are Ziola-Vega’s core clientele, and she stresses that they should pursue their goals, while keeping their limitations and well-being in mind.
“If your kid really isn’t that top 10 percent to 1 percent, you have to as a mom, dad, student, accept that.” she says.
“Say, ‘you know what? Okay. Because I’m going to excel here at this college and be in the top percentage at this college.’”
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