Student Coursework Runs Afoul of NCAA’s Rules on Eligibility

By Jeanne Ponessa — October 16, 1996 6 min read
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From all appearances, Matt Kolling fits the mold of a classic scholar-athlete.

The Spring Valley, Minn., student graduated from Kingsland High School last spring with a 3.7 grade-point average out of a possible 4.0. And after having played on the school’s state championship football squad, he was headed to Minnesota’s Mankato State University on an athletic scholarship this fall.

But it wasn’t until this summer at a Mankato State orientation that Mr. Kolling realized he was the only player who had not received a key letter of approval from the National Collegiate Athletic Association. He would not be eligible to compete, he soon learned, because an arm of the NCAA had determined that some of his English coursework did not pass academic muster under the Overland Park, Kan.-based association’s new eligibility requirements.

Mr. Kolling and his parents, who charge that the NCAA has been uncommunicative about Matt’s status, are not the only ones who are crying foul. It’s also his teachers and administrators, who defend his courses as high-quality studies designed for college-bound students. It’s other scholar-athletes who failed to earn eligibility this fall despite similarly high-level coursework. And it’s education administrators across the state, who argue that the NCAA, in failing to recognize innovative courses, hasn’t caught up with school-reform efforts.

“It strikes me as astonishing and unconscionable arrogance on the part of the NCAA,” said Joe Nathan, the director of the Center for School Change at the University of Minnesota, which helps teams of parents and educators transform public schools. “They are ignoring many of the recommendations that people all over the U.S. are making to high schools,” said Mr. Nathan, whose office has come to serve as a de facto national clearinghouse for high-performing students who have been stymied by the NCAA rules.

So far, Mr. Nathan said, he has learned of similar cases in Colorado, Illinois, North Dakota, and Washington state.

For their part, NCAA officials defend the process by which they decide if core courses meet the new standards, but say they are considering taking steps to respond to high schools’ concerns.

Eligibility Changes

Effective in August, the NCAA ratcheted up the academic standards students must meet if they want to compete in intercollegiate sports. As part of the 13 core high school courses now required, students must complete work in four, rather than three, English courses, and must have algebra and geometry. The NCAA has also established a sliding scale for minimum grade-point averages and college-entrance-exam scores. (“NCAA Rules Violate ADA, Student Charges,” Dec. 13, 1995.)

To qualify, students must submit their coursework, grades, and test scores to the NCAA’s Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse. If the clearinghouse withholds approval, the student’s prospective college may file an appeal with an eligibility subcommittee. If the panel does not grant approval, the college may file an appeal with the NCAA Council, the association’s primary governing group, said Kathryn M. Reith, an NCAA spokeswoman. The council met last week to consider final appeals for this fall.

Chris Schoemann, the director of athletics compliance for the University of Minnesota, said 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 said.

Courses Defended

At Matt Kolling’s high school, the courses under dispute include a required sophomore English class, known as Developing Study Skills, and a critical-writing and -reading class known as Applied Communications.

Gerald Vagts, Kingsland High’s principal, said that the school had conducted extensive research to develop the classes and had attempted to make them applicable to the real world. Suggesting that the course might have been mistaken for a vocational class, he said that “our big concern is, what role does the title play?”

The course title has been blamed for the troubles of other top students. Jenny Bruun graduated from Crookston (Minn.) High School with a 3.9 grade-point average last spring and was headed to play golf at the University of Minnesota. Then she learned that she was denied eligibility because of an interdisciplinary English, social studies, and technology course she took, known as World Class.

Crookston High worked with Mr. Nathan’s Center for School Change to design the rigorous and multifaceted class, said Allen Zenor, the school’s principal.

Although Ms. Bruun ultimately received a waiver from the NCAA, the school is still waiting to hear whether the association will accept the course, which requires separate adjudication. “The graduation-standards movement in this state is completely new-fashioned,” Mr. Zenor said. “The way they’re looking, [the NCAA] won’t certify anything in the future.”

As a result of complaints from students and parents, Gov. Arne H. Carlson fired off a letter to the NCAA requesting an emergency session of its council and a review of its notification guidelines.

In one case, Gov. Carlson said, a student returned to high school to complete a routine English course because an honors English course had not satisfied the NCAA.

Cedric W. Dempsey, the NCAA’s executive director, responded in a letter that the new rules had been phased in over time--and widely publicized--so that schools and students would be aware of them.

Descriptions at Fault?

Each spring the NCAA also lets high schools know which of their offerings have been accepted as core courses, Mr. Dempsey said.

Rather than directly addressing the issue of what to do with these newly fashioned courses, the NCAA essentially is throwing the ball back into the high schools’ court.

Ms. Reith said she was unaware of plans to revisit course requirements. “Every course gets looked at on a case-by-case basis by the clearinghouse anyway,” she said.

In part, the problem may stem from the schools themselves.

The clearinghouse is able to evaluate only the information that high schools hand over about a particular course, Ms. Reith said.

Problems also arise, she said, when schools submit the same course description that they give to students--a description that is meant to sound appealing to students but may seem less challenging to the clearinghouse.

Nevertheless, Ms. Reith said that the NCAA was considering a process for high schools to appeal directly to the clearinghouse. Currently, if the clearinghouse rejects a course offering, the high school has no avenue for appeal unless a college takes up the student’s cause.

The Minnesota State High School League, the governing body for interscholastic sports in the state, has also asked the NCAA to consider forming a committee with its national counterpart, the National Federation of State High School Associations, to establish a direct link with secondary schools.

Kent Bruun, the father of golfer Jenny Bruun, would welcome improved communication. Although the University of Minnesota has informed her she has been cleared to compete, the most recent letter from the clearinghouse, assumed to be erroneous, said she was ineligible. “The process is really important--let’s fix it,” Mr. Bruun said.

As for Matt Kolling, he is allowed to practice but not compete in football this season at Mankato State, and his family is still awaiting a final verdict.

“You can’t say it’s anyone’s fault, but the trouble here is these kids are the victims,” said his mother, Sue Kolling. “They did in good faith what they were told to do.”

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A version of this article appeared in the October 16, 1996 edition of Education Week as Student Coursework Runs Afoul of NCAA’s Rules on Eligibility


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