College sports provide a pathway to opportunity for hundreds of thousands of student-athletes every year. More than 1,100 colleges and universities are members of the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA). Those schools work together with the NCAA national office and athletics conferences across the country to support nearly half a million college athletes who belong to19,500 teams competing in NCAA sports. The NCAA Eligibility Center is the area of the national office that manages the initial eligibility process and serves as the first step along the pathway to access, equity, and opportunity.
How policies are made
Through a committee leadership structure, each NCAA division develops its own rules, including the bylaws governing initial eligibility. These bylaws incorporate academic requirements (including the number of high school core courses, the GPA in those core courses, and SAT or ACT scores) that student-athletes must meet in order to be eligible to compete in sports in their first year of college enrollment. These benchmarks are driven by decades of longitudinal academic data as student-athletes progress from high school through college. The set of academic requirements also provides guidelines regarding which courses may contribute toward core-course requirements, with a goal of ensuring student-athletes begin their collegiate experience prepared for college-level academic work.
Balancing legislation with innovation
As with many NCAA bylaws, those related to high school academics have been modified through the legislative process over time, in response to current realities and best practices. For example, more than 20 years ago, the only mention of “nontraditional” core courses specified that independent study and correspondence courses could not be used. Then in 2000, in response to the growing popularity of distance learning, correspondence courses, and similar learning environments, the legislation was amended to begin allowing the use of those courses, provided some conditions were met regarding how the courses were administered. These conditions were based on feedback from national secondary education organizations and practitioners, and incorporated elements such as access between instructor and student for teaching, assistance, and evaluation of work.
In the ten years that followed, NCAA staff began noticing trends in student work from some types of learning environments, in which students may have had access to an instructor but were still able to complete a course in a matter of hours or days. In these instances, there was little to no engagement with an instructor or even with the course content itself, and the rigor of curriculum and assessments did not satisfy the intent of the core-course requirements, namely to prepare student-athletes for college academic work. Once again based on feedback from education leaders and practitioners, the membership amended the legislation in 2010 to include additional requirements that are still in place today:
Courses taught via the Internet, distance learning, independent study, individualized instruction, correspondence, and courses taught by similar means may be used to satisfy NCAA core-course requirements if all of the following conditions are satisfied:
- The course meets all requirements for a core course as defined in Bylaw 188.8.131.52;
- The instructor and the student have ongoing access to one another for purposes of teaching, evaluating and providing assistance to the student throughout the duration of the course;
- The instructor and the student have regular interaction with one another for purposes of teaching, evaluating and providing assistance to the student throughout the duration of the course;
- The student’s work (e.g., exams, papers, assignments) is available for evaluation and validation;
- Evaluation of the student’s work is conducted by the appropriate academic authorities in accordance with the high school’s established academic policies;
- The course includes a defined time period for completion; and
- The course is acceptable for any student and is placed on the high school transcript.
Evolving with the education field
Over the past ten years, NCAA Eligibility Center staff have updated the review process to provide more direct opportunities for schools and districts to describe their nontraditional programs in relation to the requirements above and to demonstrate the various ways the requirements may be met. We also recognize the current inflection point for education, where recent innovations in the field are facing the unique challenges of a global pandemic. Students are learning in new ways, sometimes with multiple instructors for the same course both in-person and online, and instructors are exploring new ways for students to interact, engage, and demonstrate mastery. School, district, and state leaders are examining what safety, equity, and access look like during a pandemic, which will undoubtedly shape school operations for years to come. While we can’t predict these changes, the NCAA Eligibility Center is seeking to learn from the present moment as we remain committed to academics, well-being, and fairness.
Actions we are taking
Our history is one of engagement with stakeholders, connections to the field of education, data-driven standards, and continuous adaptation. As we look to the next phase of secondary education and the various opportunities students may have to demonstrate college readiness, we are sharing current procedures while also seeking feedback from practitioners in several settings:
- Webinars and other presentations with educational organizations and school counseling associations
- Regular discussions with the NCAA High School Review Committee, comprised of post-secondary representatives and independent members from the secondary school community
- Annual survey of high school administrators (typically available February-March)
- High School Advisory Group (stay tuned to the NCAA Eligibility Center’s high school newsletters for the next application opportunity)
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