In 2011, facing rapidly accelerating changes in how courses at colleges were being offered, NCAA schools decided to change the regulation of nontraditional courses including online and independent study courses. Previously, extension courses were allowed so long as the school considered enrollment in the courses as regular enrollment and correspondence courses, in addition to being outdated, were not permitted to be used toward full-time enrollment.
The NCAA Passes a New Proposal
The result was the passage by the NCAA membership of Proposal 2010–51-A and 2010–60. 2010–51-A covered the use of nontraditional courses toward the requirement that student-athletes be enrolled full-time to practice and compete. 2010–60 allowed student-athletes to use nontraditional courses both at their school and from other institutions toward meeting progress-toward-degree benchmarks.
The Requirements to Use Nontraditional Courses Are Simple:
- The course must be available to all students;
- The student-athlete must enroll in the course in the same manner as other students;
- Enrollment must occur during regular drop/add periods, in accordance with institutional policy; and
- To use the course for full-time enrollment, it must be conducted during the institution’s regular terms.
The goal of these rules was to prevent special nontraditional sections of classes from being arranged for student-athletes. This includes courses that other students could not enroll in, courses athletes could jump into late in the semester or a “fall” course that was actually conducted online over the semester break.
Absent from these regulations is much at all about how nontraditional courses like online courses or independent studies are run. As a contrast, look at some of the regulations adopted the year prior (Proposal 2009–64) for nontraditional courses to be used by prospects to meet NCAA Eligibility Center requirements:.
- The student and instructor have ongoing access to and interaction with one another during the duration of the course;
- The student’s work is available for evaluation and validation;
- Evaluation of the student’s work is conducted by appropriate academic authorities in accordance with established policies; and
- The course includes a defined time period for completion.
This difference almost did not happen. In 2008, a set of regulations for nontraditional courses at colleges which looked much more like the high school regulations was proposed by the Division I Academic/Eligibility/Compliance cabinet. The proposals were ultimately defeated though. In addition to the current regulations, Proposals 2008–32 and 2008–35 would have also required:
- The course involve regular interaction between the instructor and student;
- Evaluation of the student’s work be conducted by the appropriate academic authorizes in accordance with institutional policy; and
- The instructor use a conventional grading scale consistent with other similar courses.
Had these regulations been in place, the case of UNC’s no-show courses would be significantly easier. If the NCAA’s enforcement staff discovered that classes did not involve regular interaction, that work was not being evaluated properly (or at all) or that normal grading scales were not being used, the courses would be invalidated just like the Eligibility Center invalidates courses presented by prospects. Any student-athlete who fell under full-time enrollment or did not meet progress-toward-degree requirements would be declared ineligible; and any game they played in would be vacated.
The major caveat here is that the proposal would not have been effective until August 1, 2009. So any courses before the 2009–10 school year would be evaluated under less-stringent standards like we have now. That is, if by any special standard at all. Prior to the 2008 and 2010 proposals, independent study courses were not seperated out from traditional classroom instruction, just extension and correspondence courses.
It would be a more open-and-shut case, at least when it comes to whether or not UNC would be allowed to keep football and basketball victories from the period after the proposal became effective. Questions of a lack of institutional control and penalties like a postseason ban might still be harder to answer, but the existence of a violation would be clearer, although UNC would be just as likely to keep the 2009 Men’s Basketball National Championship as they are now.
While a rule change in 2009 might not have covered much of the scandal, it highlights the difficult position of the NCAA enforcement staff. What appears to be the biggest issues with the course are not just absent from any specific NCAA bylaw. Regulation of courses in this manner was expressly rejected by the NCAA membership, which felt it infringed too much on institutional academic autonomy. Essentially, the schools trusted each other with their own courses more than they trusted high schools with nontraditional courses.
So if UNC escapes punishment, which is far from a settled question at this point, it will be in part to what happened almost four years ago in Washington D.C. at the NCAA Convention. But it could re-open the old debate over central administration vs. institutional home rule. And it may do so right in the heart of the autonomy that institutions hold so dear.