A Questionable Course

By Jeanne Ponessa — January 01, 1997 4 min read

From all appearances, Matt Kolling fits the mold of a classic scholar-athlete. The Spring Valley, Minnesota, student played on the Kingsland High School championship football team and graduated last spring with a 3.7 grade-point average. This fall, he headed to Minnesota’s Mankato State University on an athletic scholarship.

But at Mankato State, Kolling discovered he was the only player who had not received a key letter of approval from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. The upshot? He would not be able to compete because some of his high school coursework did not pass academic muster under the association’s new eligibility requirements.

Kolling is crying foul, as are the teachers and administrators at his former school. The courses in question are academically rigorous, they say, and should in no way penalize Kolling.

And Kolling is not the only high-achieving student forced to the sidelines by the NCAA. The problem, educators argue, is that the NCAA hasn’t caught up with innovative curricular changes that have been initiated under the banner of reform.

“It strikes me as astonishing and unconscionable arrogance on the part of the NCAA,” says Joe Nathan, director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota and an advocate for educational change. “They are ignoring many of the recommendations that people all over the U.S. are making to high schools.” Nathan’s center serves as a de facto clearinghouse of information about high-performing students who have been stymied by the NCAA rules. So far, he has learned of cases similar to Kolling’s in Colorado, Illinois, Washington, and 14 other states.

In August, the NCAA ratcheted up the academic requirements for students who want to compete in intercollegiate sports. It now stipulates 13 core high school courses students must take, including four English courses, algebra, and geometry.

To qualify, students must submit their coursework, grades, and entrance-exam scores to the NCAA’s Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse. If the clearinghouse withholds approval, the student’s prospective college may appeal to an eligibility subcommittee. If the panel doesn’t budge, the college may then appeal to the NCAA Council, the association’s governing body.

Chris Schoemann, director of athletics compliance for the University of Minnesota, says he has seen more need for waivers this year because of the rule changes. “It’s a problem that we’ve all experienced across the NCAA,” he says.

At Matt Kolling’s high school, the courses under dispute include a required sophomore English class known as Developing Study Skills and a writing and reading class known as Applied Communications. Kingsland principal Gerald Vagts says teachers conducted extensive research in their development of these classes, hoping to make them applicable to the real world. He suggests that NCAA officials may have read the course titles and mistaken them for vocational classes. “That’s our big concern,” he says.

Course titles have been blamed for the troubles of other top students. Jenny Bruun graduated from Minnesota’s Crookston High School last spring with a 3.9 grade-point average and was headed to play golf at the University of Minnesota. Then she learned she had been denied eligibility because of an interdisciplinary English, social studies, and technology course titled World Class. According to Crookston principal Allen Zenor, the school worked with Nathan’s center to design the rigorous, multifaceted class.

Although Bruun ultimately received a waiver from the NCAA, the school is still waiting to hear whether the association will accept the course in the future. “The graduation-standards movement in this state is completely ‘new-fashioned,’ ” Zenor says. “The way the NCAA is looking, it won’t certify anything in the future.”

As a result of complaints from students and parents, Minnesota Governor Arne Carlson wrote to the NCAA requesting an emergency session of its council and a review of its notification guidelines. In one case, Governor Carlson wrote, a student returned to high school to complete a routine English course because an honors course had not satisfied the NCAA.

In a written response, NCAA Executive Director Cedric Dempsey said the new rules had been widely publicized and phased in over time so that schools and students would be aware of them. In addition, he said, NCAA officials let high schools know in advance which of their offerings have been accepted as core courses.

“Every course gets looked at on a case-by-case basis,” says Kathryn Reith, an NCAA spokeswoman. But the clearinghouse evaluates courses only on the information high schools hand over, she says. Sometimes schools submit the same course descriptions they give to students. A description that is meant to sound appealing to students, she points out, may sound less than challenging to the clearinghouse.

According to Reith, the NCAA is considering a change that would allow high schools to appeal a course rejection directly to the clearinghouse. Currently, high schools have no avenue for appeal unless a college or university chooses to take up a student’s cause.

As for Matt Kolling, he was allowed to practice but not compete in football this past fall, and he is still awaiting a final verdict on his future eligibility. “These kids are victims,” says Sue Kolling, Matt’s mom. “They did in good faith what they were told to do.”