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The Eligibility Center Should Stop Certifying Athletes

In the original version of the NCAA’s initial eligibility rules, at least original going back to 1983 when something that looked like the current system was put into place, there was no Eligibility Center. The NCAA required a 2.0 GPA in 11 core courses and a 700 SAT. But there was no common definition of what a core course was. Schools did their best or made it up as they went along until Clemson got hit with a major violation over which courses counted.

That lead to the NCAA Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse. Outsourced to the ACT and located in Iowa City, IA, the Clearinghouse was less than a complete success:

It was, according to a former staffer, “a total disaster.” So much so that its original director, Calvin Symons, refuses to talk about it. The NCAA outsourced the main work of the Clearinghouse to American College Test (ACT) headquarters, in Iowa City. In the early years, just seven employees were charged with examining 150,000 transcripts. Documents were routinely lost, phone calls unreturned. There was little or no consistency to rulings.

Part of the reason was that the Clearinghouse did not review the courses schools added to their Form 48-H, the list of courses that counted toward initial eligibility. As long as the transcript matched the list and the course met the most rudimentary of requirements, the athlete got credit.

It was not until the NCAA brought initial eligibility in house and created the NCAA Eligibility Center, specifically the High School Review department, that there started to be real teeth behind the initial eligibility requirements. Now courses and high schools had to pass through a more rigorous set of requirements before athletes could use them for initial eligibility. The result is that courses on a school’s Approved Core Course List, the successor to Form 48-H, have been checked by the NCAA and are likely to be academically sound college prep courses. Or at least are intended to be.

Which raises the question: why not give the bulk of the job of certifying athletes back to the schools? When the Clearinghouse was launched, it tried to solve the problem of core courses the wrong way. High School Review is the better solution. If everyone is finally working off common lists of courses vetted by the NCAA, certifying incoming freshmen as eligible is simply a matter of plugging in grades and test scores.

Compliance offices are already doing this. Many evaluate every single transcript that comes across the desk of a compliance coordinator. All that would be required would be to update evaluations when prospects graduate high school, turning the evaluation into a certification.

Perhaps some prospects would still be reviewed by the Eligibility Center. Those might include prospects who took nontraditional courses, prospects who just barely qualified, or prospects with questionable academic records (like transcripts where grades have been changed).

International and home school prospects would still need to go through the Eligibility Center, but even a portion of these prospects could be certified on campus. International prospects who present a Category One document (a diploma the NCAA accepts as meeting the core curriculum requirements), a sufficiently high SAT/ACT score, and possibly a sufficient TOEFL for non-native English speakers could skip the Eligibility Center. Home school students who use an NCAA-approved curriculum could also be certified by campus officials like any other student.

If schools are still so untrusting that they want the NCAA involved for every student, the NCAA could change the Eligibility Center website to receive the documents and certifications from the schools. That would make all initial eligibility decisions and supporting documents available for audit, which could be random and based on whether a student triggers any red flags. It could also be a tool for performing the certifications that would be common to every school and which compliance professionals would not need to relearn.

While there is opposition to the initial eligibility standards themselves, the NCAA members have shown no signs of dropping the requirements. If the required courses, grades, and test scores are only going to go up, the least that should happen is to make the process as efficient and as much in the control of each NCAA member institution as possible. In exchange for a little extra work (time freed up if deregulation ever gets rolling), many of the headaches caused by the Eligibility Center itself would be eliminated.

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