The University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn

July 15, 2008

You have seen the advertisements from a mobile telephone company cleverly combining the names of several cities and countries to emphasize the network’s broad coverage. It occurred to me that such combinations could be applied as well to a discussion of the NCAA’s Academic Progress Rate (APR), which tracks the academic performance of student-athletes and penalizes squads whose student-athletes do not meet certain academic performance metrics. Welcome to the University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn.

The new world of the NCAA academic eligibility standards pivot on a key yet scarcely mentioned variable: an institution’s central academic policies. As such my argument is this: a collection of academic policies, many or of all which were developed with no thought given to NCAA eligibility standards, influences greatly how the new standards will play out on any individual campus. Academic calendars, course drop policies, course scheduling practices, transfer policies and the like now mean that a student-athlete at one school may have a very different experience vis-à-vis NCAA academic standards than the student-athlete at a different institution. And the student-athlete who attends the University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn will have the easiest time of all if good ‘ole U of O adopts certain policies, but not others.

Take the calendar for dropping a course with a grade of W. At the University of Tennessee students (and student-athletes) must decide to drop a course by the forty-first day of the semester, before having the chance to submit midterm examinations and papers. This early deadline means that there is precious little time, and only limited inputs, for deciding to drop the course or not. By contrast, students at the University of Kansas may drop a course through the sixtieth day of the semester. Furthermore, students withdrawing from a course at Tennessee after the forty-first day face the possibility of earning a WF grade that counts as an F for calculating the semester gpa. Not so at Kansas, where the WF is not calculated in the gpa. Or, the student could be studying at Penn State, where the deadline to drop a course with a W is the sixtieth day. Like at Tennessee, the student there faces earning a WF grade if the course is dropped after the deadline, and the grade counts as an F for calculating the gpa. However, the Penn State student (and student-athlete) might be lucky enough to earn a WN (no grade) in this situation, which is not calculated in the gpa.

Attendance policies and course scheduling play important roles as well. Absences accrued by University of Florida student-athletes traveling to athletic competitions are excused, and faculty at Auburn University are required to schedule make up sessions for in-class examinations and assignments missed by students and student-athletes with excused absences. Not so at Tennessee, so that an athlete who misses a quiz or even examination does not have to be offered an opportunity to make up these in-class assignments (and as Faculty Athletics Representative at Tennessee I can tell you that not infrequently student-athletes’ grades suffer because of these missed opportunities).

Missing classes due to travel to competition, a primary variable in academic success, is less of a problem at the University of Iowa, where so few courses are offered on Fridays, a prime athletic travel day, that one academic college at the university is offering to pay departments to list more Friday courses. The announced goal for the return of Friday classes at Iowa is to end abusive drinking associated with “Thirsty Thursdays.” But another ramification of this change would be a sharp increase in the number of classes Iowa student-athletes will miss.

Grading scales can also matter. At Tennessee and Rutgers, athletes and students study in a system, nearly unique to these two schools, that assigns full letter grades and plus grades, but not minus grades. Other schools assign only full letter grades. Students and student-athletes at North Carolina State and the University of Alabama enjoy the opportunity to balance lower course grades with grades of A+ that carry 4.3 grade points. And speaking of course grades, does a grade of D count towards requirements in the major? They do if you are an Oregon Duck, and they do at the University of Georgia, but not if you are enrolled in a major in the College of Arts and Sciences. Perhaps no other policy plays a bigger role in determining progress towards degree eligibility for college athletes.

Myriad other policies come into play. Does the institution accept grades of D from transfer students? The University of Arkansas accepts up to six such transfer credits, but Tennessee does not. Are mid-year transfers accepted? At Vanderbilt they are not, so that its basketball coach was not allowed to sign a prominent basketball player when he wished to transfer from the University of Arizona (he now plays at Tennessee). How many courses may be repeated, how are the repeated course grades calculated, and are there other restrictions on course repeats? At Tennessee a maximum of three lower division courses may be repeated, with the higher grade replacing the lower score. At Ohio University departments set their own course repeat rules, and many allow up to five repeated courses at either the lower or upper division levels.

The relationship between academic policies and NCAA metrics has created a dilemma for which I have no immediate solution. One size does not and should not fit all in higher education. Our universities have different missions, serve different populations, and define success differently. But when addressing academic reform the NCAA does try to make one size fit all for very good reasons that have to do with fairness, establishing a level field of competition, and now to establish a reasonable chance of graduating from college. Unwittingly, its new academic expectations and regulations have upped the importance of the kinds of central academic policies operating as a whole that I have described here.

Perhaps there is no solution to this dilemma, but the NCAA’s academic reforms do teach us a valuable lesson that extends beyond athletes and athletic departments: University administrators would do well to approach key academic policies in toto when considering the academic expectations they have for all of their students. One policy alone will not determine students’ performances, but the sum of a school’s academic policies does produce an individual campus culture, certain academic expectations, and the likelihood of success or failure. At most schools these policies probably did not develop at the same time and as a coherent whole, and indeed contradictory policies may exist on the same campus.

Academic policies adopted piecemeal likely have escaped the kind of careful, cumulative review I am calling for here. Given their importance in promoting student success they should be approached as a whole, and reviewed to determine if they reflect the goals of the university. Certainly I am not calling for a cynical plan to alter policies only to facilitate an athlete’s academic eligibility, but we can take advantage of the recent NCAA academic success legislation to think more intentionally about our academic policies and how they impact all students. In short, we can learn from the NCAA.

There are many best practices to guide such a review. For a start I suggest reviewing the academic policies of the University of Ohiopennkaniowatenn, proud home of the Bobcatnittanylionjayhawkhawkeyevolunteers.


Todd Diacon is vice provost for academic operations and faculty athletics representative at the University of Tennessee at Knoxville.


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