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New Rules in Play for College-Sports Eligibility

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Starting this year, high school seniors hoping to play college sports as freshmen must undergo a new academic-eligibility-assessment process--which many school officials apparently know little or nothing about.

Designed to "level the playing field,'' the new system requires students and their high schools to submit transcripts, grades, and other documents to a central clearinghouse rather than to individual colleges and universities.

But guidance counselors, athletic directors, coaches, and admissions officers, as well as officials at the National Collegiate Athletic Association, say the implementation process has not gone smoothly.

"The concept is wonderful,'' said Jan Olson, the secondary vice president of the American School Counselor Association. "It's just that the transition has been difficult.''

Under the former system, students would submit the appropriate forms and records to individual colleges. But the N.C.A.A. found that this led to a lack of consistency.

"The end result was that Mary or Johnny was being told different things by different schools,'' said Bob Oliver, the director of legislative services for the N.C.A.A.

"Institution X said, 'Yes, you meet initial eligibility standards,''' he said. "Institution Y would say, 'No, you don't meet them.'''

To combat such disparities, the N.C.A.A. approved the clearinghouse in January 1993. The American College Testing program won a contract to operate it and began accepting registrations last August for this fall's freshmen.

High schools must have their core courses approved by the clearinghouse, and students must have their records sent there. Then colleges can check a student's status from a master list.

Communications Gap

In April of last year, the N.C.A.A. sent brochures, posters, and descriptive literature about the clearinghouse to 26,500 high school principals. A memorandum asked the principals to distribute the materials to the appropriate people.

However, many of those appropriate people apparently have not received the materials, or have found them wanting.

"Had I not gone to a guidance conference, I never would have known,'' said Laura McKelvey, a guidance counselor at Yuma High School in Yuma, Ariz.

Larry Turner, the assistant principal in charge of athletics at Redmond High School in Redmond, Ore., said he learned about the clearinghouse from a colleague who read an article in an out-of-town newspaper.

"We haven't received any of that stuff, and it's making me nervous,'' Mr. Turner said.

Ms. Olson, who is a guidance counselor in Sioux City, Iowa, said she had received the materials, but would feel more confident about them if the N.C.A.A. offered an accompanying workshop.

"Even though we're doing the job, I'm afraid we're going to have kids fall through the cracks,'' she said.

If a student's information is in order, Mr. Oliver said, turnaround time is less than two weeks. When a problem arises, he said, students should be alerted within three weeks. But the system has apparently not always worked smoothly.

"I'm telling my coaches a simple problem can take anywhere from four to 12 weeks to clear up,'' said Frank Kara, a technical consultant in the University of Minnesota athletic department's office of compliance. He cited a change in course titles as an example of a simple problem.

Of the 51 incoming athletes that Minnesota signed last fall, only 19 had been approved by the clearinghouse as of last week.

To get the word out, the N.C.A.A. ran television spots during the recent collegiate-basketball championships. Mr. Oliver has also met with high school associations.

While acknowledging that communication has been a problem, he said that some schools have resisted the change for other reasons, such as the $18 processing fee, which can be waived.

There is also resistance, he said, from schools whose core courses did not meet N.C.A.A. requirements.

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