As learning opportunities for students are expanding, the NCAA is playing academic czar, deciding which courses count towards NCAA eligibility – and those that don’t.

How does it work, then, that the most difficult high school course our son has ever taken doesn’t even count in the NCAA’s eyes, but his easiest classes do? Why is the NCAA determining not only what courses “count,” but also how instruction is delivered?

Course approval emphasizes input over outcome. The answer to the first question is simple and unfortunate. The NCAA cares more about inputs (venue and teaching model) than the outputs (student learning outcomes).

In the instance of our son’s online language course, despite the rigor in learning process and outcome, it didn’t “count” because the venue was online and there wasn’t enough live teacher contact. In other words, the inputs weren’t good enough for the NCAA, so he will need to use other courses – those he takes in our local brick and mortar high school – to fulfill his NCAA eligibility requirements.

With the NCAA’s misplaced emphasis on time, place and process (inputs) in an era when the education sector is moving to a competency focus (outcomes), online course providers – and their students – suffer most. Because of certain requirements, online and other nontraditional courses are often not approved while classes taken in a traditional setting fare much better in the NCAA process.

This would be somewhat analogous to a non-athletic focused governing body determining that, for intercollegiate competitions, the winners should be based on coaching style and facility instead of who wins the game. As Tom Vander Ark pointed out in it’s not within NCAA’s jurisdiction – and should be left to state boards of education, legislatures, accreditation agencies and other educational authorities.

The narrow course approval standards used by the NCAA limit school choice options for students and parents. While the intent may be to protect against academic fraud, it punishes willing and eager students seeking to develop skills and goes against the NCAA’s goals – to “safeguard the well-being of student athletes and equip them with skills…”

Tail wagging the dog of learning. Regarding the second question about instructional delivery, a ripple effect of the NCAA’s emphasis is that the NCAA is not just determining the courses students can take, but also influencing how the courses students can take are being taught and assessed.

Again, our son’s direct experience in online course brought this to life for me. During a recent conversation with his teacher, she began her response to a question with, “Well, due to the NCAA, we have had a change in our policies…” She went on to describe how instructors are no longer allowed to provide alternative assessments or allow students to retake any objective test.

Sure, I’m concerned about the assessment practice when it’s normal to have multiple ways for students to demonstrate their learning. However, what bothered me most was that the NCAA is at the forefront of the teacher’s mind as she thinks about instruction. I don’t fault her, but feel for her. Let teachers teach. I didn’t go into this conversation asking about the NCAA, I went into it wanting to know more about the various ways he’d demonstrate his learning.

So, while this year our son is taking his course through a different online provider and will count for NCAA eligibility, the pedagogy used is being unduly influenced by the NCAA nontraditional approval process.

NCAA should focus on what it does best. The NCAA should stick its domain of athletics and working to support the well-being of student-athletes by doing things they say they do such as creating the framework of rules for fair and safe competition. I appreciate that part of their work.

Having served as an NCAA coach, a high school administrator, and now a parent, I want to support development of scholar-athletes as much as anyone. So yes, there should be academic standards, but they should be governed by bodies focused on academics, not athletics.

That way, students can access the myriad course opportunities available to them and partake in learning experiences influenced more by their future goals and their teachers than an athletics governing body.

In the long-term, the well-being of students, and their ability to pursue the choices that will help them best achieve their academic and athletic goals will be better served. Students deserve that.

As NCAA student-athletes tell us, “Most of us go pro in something other than sports.”

For more on the NCAA’s recent decision:

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