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D3 Swimming – One of the Best-Kept Secrets in the NCAA

posted Jul 20, 2013, 6:13 PM by Pat Windschitl   [ updated Jul 20, 2013, 6:13 PM ]

Article by Greg Parini – Head Coach, Denison University Swim and Dive Team. Article originally published on August 3rd through USA Swimming's Online Coaches Clinics. Greg Parini has been involved in D3 swimming for 30 years, first as a swimmer at Kenyon and subsequently as a D3 coach.

One of the biggest advantages of D3 Swimming is that the student-athlete is able to attend and receive an education at a D3 school. Period. Why D3 is NOT chosen largely comes down to several misperceptions.
Big IS NOT better nor is BIG best. Our strength actually lies in our size as smaller colleges. In fact, 14 out of the top 50 universities in the country are D3 and 40 out of the top 50 colleges in the country (US News and World Report 2011) are D3 schools. This ratio extends to the top 100 of both categories.

The advantages include a strong sense of school community, smaller class sizes, stronger relationships at all levels, plus a sense of belonging is fostered. Swimmers are known on campus as individuals and by the professors, students, alumni, trustees, president of the university, and coaches. The student-athlete is truly known as a person. D3 schools place a premium on academics and co-curricular successes/programs. Thus an athlete is able to effectively compete both athletically and academically (which is much less the case than at D1 schools).

There is a qualitative difference in the teaching methods (Parini has taught at both D1 and D3 schools). Essentially the material is the same as at D1 schools, but with smaller class sizes, the curriculum and discussions may be tailored to the specific dynamics of the classroom. Hence the context is different. There is way more discussion at D3. At D1, only the top 10% and the bottom 10% of the students in a class are known by the professor. In a class of 14, the course can be geared towards the strengths and weaknesses of the specific group. Professors get to know the students personally. The learning environment is great. It is not enough to just be one dimensional. The goal of the education is to set the student up for long term success (including their job). Hence, one of the biggest advantages is the environment which includes the types of people they encounter and the relationships they form.

At a big D1 school, it is very very difficult to be competitive in the pool and to also be able to compete in the classroom especially at schools where the athletic competition is at a high level and the competition is so great academically (Stanford, Cal, UCLA, Michigan as examples). Additionally, a D3 athlete is much more likely to be attend NCAAs.

Question from Coach: How to steer to D3 when you know D1 isn’t a fit for a swimmer? In this case, the swimmer wanted a “big time school”. Well, what exactly does that mean? What are the motivations for D1? Academics is one thing, the level of athletics is another and perhaps they view social as the third (boring?). Ask the questions of the swimmers. There may be ego involved.

Upper level D3 Swimming (Emory, Kenyon, Denison, Williams as examples) can effectively compete with almost all but the most competitive D1 schools. Most D3 teams can compete with midlevel D1 schools. However, status and ego get involved when picking schools. If a swimmer is not a bona fide world class level swimmer, it is very very hard to be competitive at top D1 schools. A swimmer must be world-class. There are not scholarships available at those top level schools unless you are top 50 in the world. These dollars will go overseas to find the athletes. One needs to stop and take a look as D3 swimming is super competitive. You will be pleasantly surprised as the highest level D3 swimmers have gone on to the Olympics, Olympic Trials, World Games, Pan Pacific, Nationals and certainly Jr Nationals. This is a testimony that good swimming is going on at the D3 level. Additionally, most swimmers actually get a chance to both participate on the team and to compete. For many D1 swimmers, they don’t actually get the chance to compete but instead just attend practices.

How do you measure the Success of an undergraduate education? There are two critical areas.

  1. Critical and creative thinking skills

  2. The ability to communicate effectively both in writing and in speech.

These two components will not change; they will transcend any changes in technology, etc. People need to be able to adapt. The world will change. The world will get smaller and smaller. No matter how it changes, people need to be able to adapt or they will go the way of the dinosaur. So, the hallmark of a great undergraduate education is teaching the students these skills. This is best done with smaller class sizes and at a smaller environment where there are more interaction/relationships at all levels. The same goes with swimming. The most adaptable swimmers, those that can make changes even without immediate results, are the ones that succeed.

Perception: What kind of swimming is going on at D3? Many think that it is the kids that couldn’t get scholarships at the D1 level. However, many of the D3 swimmers turned down scholarships elsewhere because they valued the education and the environment/culture that they find at D3 in terms of such things as classroom size, interaction with professors, internships and team culture.

Look at the D3 National records. These are very fast swims. Most of them have been set in the last 10 years (D3 is getting more and more competitive). They are quality swims that will stand up against mid-D1 teams. They have also been achieved without the aid of the technical suits of a few years ago. In many cases, you will find that D3 schools can be more affordable and will provide a better education. There is great quality of coaching, athletes and events. Very very few D1 schools would turn these D3 swims down as they would be attractive to all but D1 schools at the highest level. Therefore, the D3 product is good on all fronts: the coaches, the athletes, the programs and also the facilities. In the last 25 years, the facilities at D3 schools have vastly improved. The NCAA Invitational times are not super high but they are fast and they are appropriate. The quality of the meet keeps improving. The kids are now surpassing the blip of the technical suits.

Big Factor/Big Misperception. D3 schools often are disqualified immediately as being more expensive. There is “sticker shock” as many have a list price at over $50,000. This is a real question and it needs to be addressed. Most schools make it affordable. One would be really surprised to find out how much money is actually out there as most are equipped with aggressive financial aid packages. In many, many cases, a D3 education is the same if not less expensive than D1.

D3 Financial Aid comes in two ways:

  • Need-Based – based on income, assets and debt (FAFSA form)

  • Academic/Merit (leadership record) Based– this is usually reserved for the most “deserving” students. In D3, athletes are not allowed scholarships but the reality is that every school values certain aspects of their specific culture and for many D3 schools, swimming is part of the culture and they will help finance it. Leadership/sport is important. Athletes are considered “leaders” at many schools.

Forms of Financial Aid: loans, scholarships/grants, work-study.

Value of this type of aid (as opposed to athletic scholarships) is that: receiving the aid is NOT tied to swimming. The kids are participating in the sport because they love it and they want to be there. Secondly, the swimmers want to get better and not because they have to swim to finance their way through school and thirdly, the student-athletes are able to take a full load, graduate in 4 years without summer school. It may end up less expensive than many public schools.

D3 Swimming provides an integrated approach towards the student-athlete (academics and athletics).

  • Kids are swimming for “love of the sport” which creates a much healthier team environment (not competing against each other for scholarships). The team is there because they want to be and not because they have to be.

  • The whole team has the opportunity to compete. D1 travel squads are often fairly skeletal. This is not the case with most D3 programs. Most D1 swimmers never travel nor attend a Championship meet so there is actually little opportunity to compete

  • Traveling with the team creates meaning to their swimming

  • Swimming as a sport isn’t competing with revenue producing sports (football for instance) and in many cases the spotlight may actually be on the pool/them

In D3 swimming, there is something for virtually everyone at every level as there is a very wide range of abilities from the highly competitive to participation based. D3 offers 243 women’s programs and 204 men’s programs.

In conclusion, Greg Parini linked to a blog written by Ben Moses, a D1 photographer which Denison hired to capture the 2011 D3 NCAA Championships in Knoxville. Moses had never photographed any D3 sports nor ever been to a swimming competition. He was so taken by the event; he wrote an article (which follows) entitled “For the Love of the Sport”. The article captures the essence of D3swimming.

Questions from after the clinic.

Is the NCAA Clearinghouse used by D3?

No. He wasn’t even sure of its purpose


Best places to go to get information?

D3Swimming.com is the best site out there. In fact, it is award winning, literally, for its quality of information. Or, look at collegeswimming.com or talk to your local D3 coaches as coaches love to talk and may provide some great ideas/suggestions.

Link: For the Love of the Sport.