As both two- and four-year colleges that depend on state funding seek new revenues to close budget gaps and keep their doors open, many have expanded into the realm of online-based distance-learning programs that offer students quick and often easy ways to earn credit hours that will transfer back to bigger schools. And with pressure mounting on college sports coaches to keep players academically eligible under tougher NCAA guidelines that can punish schools, more athletes are turning to such distance-learning programs to earn a quick grade that will keep them on the field.
At Western Oklahoma State College, a small community college two hours from Oklahoma City, online distance-learning programs offer three credit hours for just 10 days of coursework and a cheap price. The quick turnaround has made Western Oklahoma State and schools like it a popular “destination” for athletes needing a quick fix to stay eligible, as the Chronicle of Higher Education reports:
Last year those 10-day classes attracted 5,668 students. Many are adult learners and others looking to finish their degrees faster. But the market for athletes has proven particularly lucrative. Nearly half of the students in those classes play college sports, the college estimates.
The courses are especially popular with junior-college players looking to transfer to the big time. But elite research universities have also accepted their credits. Bobby Bowden, the now-retired Hall of Fame football coach at Florida State University, once put in a personal call to arrange for some of his players to take Western Oklahoma courses. Lately, Western Oklahoma credits have appeared on the transcripts of one of the most highly recruited quarterbacks in the country, basketball players from numerous NCAA tournament teams, and athletes in at least 11 NCAA Division I conferences.
Western Oklahoma State is an accredited school, meaning most four-year colleges and universities will accept credits earned in its programs. And though school officials stand by the rigor of its academic offerings, programs detailed by the Chronicle don’t always pass the smell test. One Humanities course, for instance, covers seven centuries (from the Renaissance to modern day) and the “art, culture, society, religion, politics” that “inform our modern world.” It manages all of that in 10 days of “class.”
An official at the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which accredits Western Oklahoma State, expressed concern to the Chronicle over the school’s 10-day sessions, but because it isn’t up for accreditation review until at least 2017, it will remain accredited until then. That will allow four-year colleges to continue accepting its credits, even if those hours are handed out in a fashion that makes Western Oklahoma State seem like a diploma mill only interested in the revenues its program generates.
The attraction of such programs to college athletes struggling to remain eligible is clear. Western Oklahoma, according to the Chronicle, mails its transcripts the day after the 10-day session ends, making it easy for an athlete who stumbled in one class to make up for it without much delay:
“You jump online, finish in a week and a half, get your grade posted, and you’re bowl-eligible,” says one Big Ten academic adviser.
Though the NCAA has taken aggressive, if controversial, steps to increase its academic standards in recent years, the Chronicle piece is yet another reminder of the tension that exists between the big business atmosphere of college sports and the academic missions of the institutions that participate in those sports. As long as college sports remain a big business for the NCAA and its schools, those institutions will do what they can (often within the rules and often outside of them) to keep their athletes eligible, even if that means pushing the “student” side of the “student-athlete” equation through shady academic programs like the 10-day classes offered by small schools like Western Oklahoma State.
That tension isn’t going away. In reality, it’s probably only going to get worse. And no matter how tough the NCAA’s restrictions on academic programs get, the situation won’t get better until the organization reconciles the fact that the big business of college sports and the academic missions of its member institutions don’t jibe in a way that makes both sides of the “student-athlete” equation work properly.