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Publish date: Nov 17, 2010

Academic certification ensures equity

By Michelle Brutlag Hosick
NCAA.org

The purpose of NCAA Divisions I and II academic certification is simple: NCAA member institutions expect prospective student-athletes to exhibit a level of college academic preparedness. The academic certification requirements and the minimum academic standards set by Divisions I and II are designed to ensure that prospective student-athletes are prepared to succeed in the classroom.

The NCAA Eligibility Center academic certification staff administers this process for prospective student-athletes from different educational backgrounds: domestic, international, home school and “split files” (a combination of backgrounds). The Eligibility Center staff is tasked with making sure that the academic performance represented within the academic credentials (including official high school transcripts and test scores) presented by the prospective student-athlete meets the standards set by the NCAA membership.

Most academic certifications are straightforward in the sense that prospective student-athletes attended traditional brick-and-mortar high schools. In these cases, the schools provide clear, easy-to-read transcripts and no questions arise about how a course was administered, where it was completed or the sequence in which it was completed. About 95 percent of Eligibility Center registrants fall in this category, and they are generally traditionally educated in the United States.

Most of the more complicated academic certifications are represented primarily in international and home-school cases. Those cases are labor intensive. International prospective student-athletes present a completely different set of issues than their domestic counterparts, and while the international prospective student-athletes represent only 5 percent of all registrants, the numbers are on the rise. Home-schooled prospective student-athletes, about 2 percent of registrants, also present difficult issues.

Nontraditional coursework, in different forms, continues to increase, often requiring additional review by the high school review team.

“Our role is to ensure that each prospective student-athlete’s academic performance has integrity so that our academic certification decision has the highest level of confidence and reliability for the membership,” said Scott Johnson, the NCAA Eligibility Center’s associate director of academic certification.

Johnson said the high school review department examines the content of the courses to confirm they are truly college preparatory courses. The academic certification department, using the official high school documents, analyzes the acceptable core courses to help arrive at the final academic certification decision.

Johnson stressed that his staff objectively applies the policies established by the Divisions I and II memberships.

“We do not have the freedom to be subjective, such as considering why a poor grade was achieved, resulting in a nonqualifier decision. Subjectivity is within the purview of the NCAA academic and membership affairs department’s waiver and appellate process. Our responsibility to the membership is to be objective, critical and strict,” he said.

To that end, about 30,000 U.S. high schools each must submit their list of courses that meet the NCAA-legislated definition of a core course. Prospective student-athletes for Division I schools are required to produce transcripts showing 16 completed core courses.

The high school review team, created in 2006 as a part of the national office and moved to the NCAA Eligibility Center the following year, originally was initiated to combat the “diploma mills” that were issuing high school transcripts to prospective student-athletes who didn’t actually earn credits. The team has evolved into a more specialized group that examines the academic integrity and rigor of different types of core courses, including those offered outside traditional classrooms. Actual reviews of entire high schools are rare, though investigations still occur.

Those who work on the team are quick to observe that they are not tasked with determining a quality high school education or what should be required for high school graduation. Their goal is to determine what courses meet the NCAA’s definition of a core course.

“What we really have become is the quality control of the documents that are presented,” said Mark Hicks, associate director of high school review. “We’re trying to ensure the integrity of the process, whether a course meets our legislation and whether the high school is delivering the curriculum in a way that we have a good representation of the work that was done by the student.”

The relationship the NCAA Eligibility Center is developing a cooperative and collaborative relationship with high schools. Staffers routinely visit high schools to explain academic certification and NCAA rules. Many are former high school educators themselves.

“We work actively with the high schools and have done many things to cultivate those relationships,” Hicks said. “We have a great rapport with thousands of schools, and that’s important to us.”

One of the biggest trends in nontraditional coursework involves credit-recovery courses. Such courses can be different at every school. In some school districts, they have replaced the traditional summer school, which became too costly for high schools to operate.

Some credit recovery courses are offered online while others take place inside an actual high school using software and a supervisor who may be watching over students taking credit-recovery courses in five or six different subjects.

New Division I rules helped ensure that acceptable nontraditional courses allow students to demonstrate that their work was completed consistent with the intent and design of the core-course curriculum requirements. The rule requires all high school courses delivered nontraditionally (whether online, virtual, independent study, correspondence or credit-recovery courses) to include, among other things, regular access throughout the course and interaction between the instructor and student for teaching, evaluating and assistance purposes. Division II will vote on similar legislation (backed by the NCAA Division II Presidents Council) at the January 2011 NCAA Convention.

Those common-sense provisions led to the media occasionally portraying the NCAA as being against nontraditional courses. Lisa Mills, who heads up the high school review unit, said the characterizations are groundless and that nontraditional programs are approved regularly.

“Say for example a prospective student-athlete went to Miami-Dade High School and then takes his entire senior year at Florida Virtual,” Mills said. “That is not a problem at all. We know Florida Virtual has a list of courses just like every other high school. The issue is not when nontraditional courses are taken, but when there is something on a transcript that raises questions, courses that have been repeated but you don’t know how, or an unfamiliar notation.”

The notations could lead to a finding that a course doesn’t meet NCAA legislation, or it could simply need a clarification from the high school. That can take time, especially in the summer when high schools may be lightly staffed.

“We rely on high schools to be transparent and honest,” Mills said. “You have to trust that what they give you is right. We can’t question every grade on every transcript.”

When there is a question about a transcript or a specific course, prospective student-athletes’ credentials can be turned over to the prospective student-athlete (PSA) review team at the NCAA national office. Some triggers of the PSA review process include a large number of nontraditional courses taken after the sixth semester, a rapid increase in grade-point average, attending multiple high schools and test score abnormalities.

“We try to look at records holistically, not just at the one or two triggers that got the case to us,” said Steve Clar, associate director of academic and membership affairs. Once a case is identified for PSA review, the AMA staff works with compliance and academic support staffs to review transcripts and communicate with the high schools, which are under no obligation to cooperate.

Once the PSA review staff has all the information, they validate or invalidate the portion of the academic record at issue. Those decisions can be appealed to the NCAA Student Records Review Committee (a membership group), with the institution taking part in the appeal.

If the coursework is validated, the staff notifies the institution and the NCAA Eligibility Center updates the prospective student-athlete’s file within 24 to 48 hours. If it is invalidated, the member institution generally begins the initial-eligibility waiver process, which can result in decisions for a full or partial waiver (for financial aid and practice or financial aid only) or a denial.

The decisions can be appealed in both divisions.

The academic certification process at the NCAA Eligibility Center has improved every year, Johnson said, with the staff becoming more familiar with the different ways transcripts present themselves and making high-quality decisions in a shorter time. The staff was reorganized to improve workflow management. The improvements have also created a system that handles special requests from the membership, with priorities even within that subset of cases.

Overall, the goal is to get everybody in the system certified by the end of July, although sometimes that’s not possible because a prospective student athlete’s file is incomplete. And if prospective student-athletes are not on an Institutional Request List, they are not considered a high priority because no one in the membership is actively recruiting that person.

“Looking at academic certification from a customer-service perspective, our goal is to think of what the membership needs before they need it,” Johnson said. “But, we still get feedback from the membership, and it is a top priority to listen to and address their concerns.”

 To that end, the membership in 2007 created the early academic-qualifier program. That program allows the NCAA Eligibility Center to offer preliminary academic certifications to prospective student-athletes who meet specific academic standards – higher than those for simple academic qualification – after junior year.

But even for those who don’t meet the early qualifier standard, Johnson encouraged early registration. Generally, by the time prospective student-athletes register after their junior year, it could be too late to guide them into necessary core courses or improve a lagging grade-point average.

“It would be great if prospective student-athletes registered with the NCAA Eligibility Center as early as the start of Grade 9 and thus in the system as freshmen, sophomores and juniors. They could read what they need to know, educate themselves on the standards, understand the requirements and know what courses they need to take,” Johnson said. “They could actively engage their parents and high school guidance counselors with the NCAA initial-eligibility process.”

The NCAA Eligibility Center staff is dedicated to educating itself, too. Mills said conditions change in secondary education almost daily, especially with leadership changes, funding cuts and increased federal standards. Something that met NCAA legislation for core courses one year might need to be re-examined the next.

“The NCAA as a whole is committed to the academic success of the student-athletes,” she said.