Black Mark for BYU

June 9, 2010

Brigham Young University's Independent Study program appears to be wildly successful. At any given time, students are taking more than 100,000 high school courses and 22,000 college classes, for a variety of reasons: to get courses out of the way in the summer, finish high school or college early, or improve their performance in classes in which they struggled. Based on those numbers and the fees the program charges for its nearly 600 online courses, the program generates millions of dollars in revenue a year. (BYU officials won't say.)

A tiny fraction of its enrollments -- about 500 a year -- are high school athletes seeking to use the BYU program's courses to meet the National Collegiate Athletic Association's freshman eligibility standards. Yet for the second time in several years, dealings with the high-stakes world of big-time college athletics appear to pose a potentially serious threat to the 90-year-old program's status. Last month, the NCAA decided to "de-certify" the BYU program (and one other, the American School) as a legitimate provider of "nontraditional" courses. The decision came in response to a change in NCAA rules this spring requiring "nontraditional" courses to include regular interaction between students and professors, and to set specific timeframes in which the courses must be completed.

Brigham Young officials expressed dismay about the NCAA's decision, which they said had caught them by surprise. "We do want to look at what we can do to be in compliance with what the NCAA has put in place," said Carri Jenkins, a spokeswoman for the university.

She noted that BYU Independent Study had made a set of changes in its programs and policies the last time it drew NCAA scrutiny -- when athletes at several colleges were found to have earned credit from their institutions for courses at BYU in which they did little or no work (or cheated to complete). Among other changes, Jenkins noted, BYU Independent Study altered its policies surrounding when and how tests are administered, and stopped letting athletes enrolled in NCAA member colleges enroll in its classes.

But the courses remain a commonly-trod path for high school athletes seeking to meet the NCAA's academic eligibility standards for freshman athletes, which require students to surpass a minimum grade-point average in 16 core high school courses to compete in their first year in college. BYU and the American School, which is based in Illinois, are among the most common programs from which high school athletes seek eligibility through nontraditional courses, which the association defines as "[t]hose taught via the Internet, distance learning, independent study, individualized instruction, correspondence, and courses taught by similar means, including software-based credit recovery courses."

Use of the courses has burgeoned, and in March the association's Division I members approved a rule aimed at toughening oversight of them, said Chuck Wynne, an NCAA spokesman. "Members were obviously concerned that prospective student-athletes were taking these courses and not being prepared for the rigors of college academics," he said. The changes require that instructors and students have "ongoing access to one another and regular interaction with one another for purposes of teaching, evaluating and providing assistance to the student throughout the duration of the course"; that the "student's work ... is available for review and validation"; and that "[a] defined time for completion of the course is identified by the high school or secondary school program."

In the wake of the rules changes, NCAA officials began reviewing providers of nontraditional courses, and the association has "approved a bunch" as meeting the new standards, Wynne said. So far, only BYU Independent Study and the American School were found to fall short. (American School responded to the NCAA's findings, which it is appealing, here.)

Wynne declined to specify exactly how and why BYU was deemed to fall short of the NCAA standards. But he said that most of the scrutiny of the nontraditional programs focused on the lack of regular, sustained interaction between students and instructors -- ideally interaction initiated by the instructor, designed to ensure at least some oversight of the students' work -- and on some programs' failure to set a minimum timeframe for the completion of course work.

One NCAA review -- "not necessarily at BYU," Wynne said -- found that one high school athlete had completed "a semester of algebra in six minutes."

"We understand that these are good quality educational tools when implemented and done right," Wynne said, noting that the NCAA is not philosophically opposed to online learning. "It's mostly about the administration of these programs. You can have the best curriculum in the world, but if someone does algebra in six minutes, you know there's something wrong."

Jenkins of BYU insisted that the six-minute-algebra incident had most definitely not taken place in one of the university's online offerings. She said that the university plans to do whatever it needs to to reassure the NCAA that its courses are of high quality, and that the independent study program had not heard from past, current or prospective students who might be concerned about a stigma from the NCAA's action.

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