Athletic Eligibility in the Digital Age

October 14, 2008

In an age when a growing number of students take online courses both for credit and to achieve full-time enrollment status, the National Collegiate Athletic Association does not extend this same standard to Division I athletes. Now, two proposals that the division’s Legislative Council will consider next month could change this quirk of athletic eligibility, letting athletes count online courses taken both at their institution and other institutions to meet their required minimum of 12 credit hours per semester.

Currently, a Division I athlete can use a combination of courses taken both at his or her institution and “extension courses” taken at another institution during the same time period to meet minimum enrollment standards. These external courses may only be counted if the athlete’s institution considers enrollment in them acceptable for all of its students. Correspondence courses, however, are not currently accepted to meet this minimum requirement. As written, NCAA bylaws make no mention of online or other “non-traditional courses,” so athletes may not use them to meet this requirement.

The two proposals before the Legislative Council would define these courses as “distance-learning, correspondence, extension, Internet courses, independent study or any other course or credit that is not earned in a typical face-to-face classroom environment with regular contact hours between the instructor and the student.” The first of these would allow “non-traditional courses” taken at an athlete’s institution to help meet the full-time enrollment requirement for athletic competition. The second would take that standard one step further by counting “non-traditional courses” taken at another four-year institution. Both establish minimum standards that must be in place for these courses to count toward full-time enrollment, noting that these courses must be treated, administratively, in a fashion equivalent to traditional face-to-face courses and with the same academic standards.

Carolyn Callahan, chair of the NCAA Academics/Eligibility/Compliance Cabinet that referred the proposals to the Legislative Council and education professor at the University of Virginia, said the language of the bylaws needed to be updated to accommodate new methods of course delivery. The bylaws that currently allow athletes to use “extension courses” -- a kind of non-traditional course -- to meet his or her minimum enrollment standard are simply being amended to incorporate methods such as online delivery, Callahan said.

She said she views the incorporation of these courses into the NCAA’s requirements as an issue of equitable treatment for athletes. Still, her cabinet’s sponsorship of these two proposals was not without some debate and concern.

Callahan said that many members of the panel expressed concerns about institutional control and academic trust in the ever-changing world of postsecondary education. The official rationale stated in the cabinet’s sponsorship of the proposals notes the importance of respecting institutional discretion, authority and integrity in the handling of “non-traditional courses.” Academic fraud can arise in any setting, Callahan said, and that possibility should not invalidate the use of online courses. When accepting transfer credit, she added, institutions are typically unable to tell when a course has been taken online. If one institution accepts and trusts credits from another under normal circumstances, she said, it will do the same under these circumstances -- when athletes take non-traditional courses.

“There are times when I’m uneasy about online courses,” Callahan said. “If people have had bad experiences, then they’ll likely be opposed to them. Still, I worry that we always assume people are doing bad things. Certainly, people do, and there are some people trying to scam the system. I understand the potential for fraud, but we simply can’t control that. We have to trust that the institution will be in control.”

In the near future, Callahan said, she anticipates that the NCAA will require institutions to show some oversight of their use of online and other “non-traditional courses” for recertification. These potential changes to the eligibility requirement, she argued, are just recognition of these new methods of learning.

The National Association of Academic Advisors for Athletics submitted comments from its members regarding these proposals, which do not represent an official position but are designed to help shape the discussion by Division I Legislative Council. The group’s comments support the proposal for the acceptance of non-traditional courses from an athlete’s home institution for minimum enrollment requirements but not the proposal to accept their use from other four-year institutions.

Danez M. Marrable, chair of the group’s Legislative Services Committee and associate athletics director for student services at the University of Alabama Birmingham, said the panel's members simply needed more information about this second piece of legislation. While there were some concerns expressed about the possibility of academic fraud, she said, this is always the case when an institution cannot have direct oversight of another institution’s course. Ultimately, she said, the group supports treating athletes equitably in the acceptance of academic credit.

The organization will offer an official stance and further review this proposal and others related to athletic eligibility after the vote of the Division I Legislative Council in November and before the NCAA’s Board of Directors hears the matter in January.

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