How Many Online Courses Should Athletes Be Allowed to Take?

Iowa imposed limit on distance education by its athletes, only to back away. Does online ed help athletes learn, or just make it easier for them to miss classes?

November 15, 2017
 
University of Iowa

The University of Iowa announced last week that starting this spring, athletes there will be allowed to take all but three credits (one course) per semester online. The decision, as reported in a local newspaper, The Gazette, reverses a previous policy that restricted athletes to one online course per semester, even as the institution’s other residential students had more flexibility.

The rule change highlights an ongoing debate over whether athletes benefit or suffer from taking any or all online courses -- and whether institutions want them to take distance education classes to bolster their competitive eligibility or to enhance their academic achievement. Observers believe more institutions are likely to follow Iowa’s example, though some are skeptical that athletes will benefit from taking more online courses.

"Athletes should have the same type of access to educational options as the regular student body," said Dave Ridpath, an associate professor of sports management at Ohio University who also serves as president of the Board of Directors of the Drake Group, which promotes academic integrity in college sports. "That might mean online courses. The flip side is, is this going to be used as an eligibility-maintenance measure rather than actual choice by the athlete?"

Rules As of Now

“Inside Digital Learning” reached out to the 14 institutions in the Big Ten sports conference, of which Iowa is a member, to find out about the institutions' online course policies regarding athletes. Besides Iowa, eight of the league's member universities responded to our inquiry.

Rutgers University and Indiana University allow their athletes to take up to two online courses per semester, though they can sometimes secure approval for a third. Rutgers has an additional rule: first-semester freshmen are not permitted to take online courses, a spokeswoman said. Pennsylvania State University and the University of Minnesota, meanwhile, allow athletes to take one online course per semester, with the option to request a second. The University of Michigan, Ohio State University, the University of Nebraska at Lincoln, Northwestern University and Purdue University allow athletes to take as many online courses as they want.

The University of Maryland and the University of Illinois were unable to track down the information in time for publication. Michigan State University and the University of Wisconsin did not return a request for comment.

At the University of Iowa, the proliferation of online courses available to all students prompted expanding access for athletes, officials said.

The National College Athletic Association weighed in on this issue for the first time in 2011. Its membership, now more than 1,100 colleges and universities, at the time considered two proposals, according to NCAA spokeswoman Michelle Hosick: one that limited athletes to taking 50 percent of their courses per semester through a distance format, and another that placed no limit on athletes’ online course enrollment. The latter proposal won out.

“The general consensus at that time was that student athletes should be provided similar access to nontraditional courses as all students at a particular school,” Hosick said.

Those who argued for the former policy wanted to recognize the benefits of the classroom environment and establish an additional safeguard against potential cheating or academic misconduct, according to Hosick. No NCAA bodies have considered a rule change since 2011, she added.

Shifting Culture at Iowa

When Iowa first started offering online courses a few years ago, the institution’s presidential committee on athletics was reluctant to let athletes take them, given the uncertainty over academic integrity, according to Elizabeth Tovar, associate athletics director for student-athlete academic services. More recently, the institution warmed slightly to the idea, creating a waiver system by which athletes could petition their academic advisers for the opportunity to take more than one online course per semester.

Advisers would typically encourage athletes to seek a waiver if their busy schedules meant the classes they wanted to take face-to-face wouldn’t be offered at convenient times. Tovar said all waiver applications that made it to her desk were likely to be approved because they had already secured an adviser’s blessing.

Waiver requests started coming with increasing frequency as Iowa expanded its online offerings, according to Tovar. Since then, the institution has granted between 120 and 140 waivers, mostly for students hoping to take two online courses. Two students successfully petitioned to take all of their courses online because they were traveling abroad with the field hockey team, she said.

Iowa still prefers that students, including athletes, take face-to-face courses whenever possible, Tovar said. But the presidential committee decided that because online courses are vetted by the university and its Board of Regents, there’s no reason to restrict athletes from taking them.

“We have to ask the question, do we want to treat our students differently from any student on campus?” Tovar said. “Right now with our policy, we have higher expectations of student athletes in terms of online courses.” Even with the policy change, Iowa's athletes are still held to higher standards -- nonathletes have no restrictions on the number of online courses they can take per semester.

Iowa State University has had a version of the University of Iowa’s rules in place for several years, since the institution started offering online courses. Nonathletes have no restrictions for online courses, while athletes must take at least one course on campus.

“We want to make sure they’re here in town, working out, participating in their sport and receiving academic support, especially if they’re on scholarship,” said Patrice Ayeni, senior associate athletics director for student services at Iowa State.

Some athletes at Iowa State continue to take all their classes face-to-face, while others are more inclined toward online courses, Ayeni said. The flexible policy allows athletes to choose the path that best suits their learning style and practice schedule.

Possible Ramifications

Not everyone sees the prospect of athletes taking more online classes as a step in the right direction. Ridpath thinks the policies at the two Iowa institutions could be more harmful than helpful in the long term. Athletes, who are already in a different social position and have more time constraints than regular students do, could become further siloed from the campus culture they’re ostensibly there to experience.

Ridpath also said he thinks one-on-one guidance from instructors in face-to-face classes might be more helpful to athletes than online courses, which require more self-starting discipline.

“We’re more concerned about their eligibility and being able to compete on the field or court so we can generate that revenue and have that point of pride for the institution. So we often look the other way when we’re not educating these kids properly,” Ridpath said. “It’s just not exclusive to online courses. [But] I do think there’s a little less oversight online because you don’t know who’s actually on the [other end of the] computer.”

Online courses, despite their rigor, can be the “path of least resistance” for institutions hoping to keep athletes academically eligible to compete while allowing them to be more distant from the watchful eye of an instructor, Ridpath said. “The big issue with online courses is we don't know for the most part who is on the other side of the computer,” he said. “While tests can be proctored, etc., there is still a level of oversight that is missing and could be exploited.”

On the other hand, the prospect of more flexibility to navigate busy schedules is appealing, Ridpath said.

How Institutions Handle Skepticism

University of Iowa administrators say the university has had an easier time monitoring students’ performance online because all of the paperwork is electronic. Though Tovar didn’t offer specific data points, she said athletes’ grades in online courses are generally “equal to or very comparable” with the grades they receive in face-to-face courses.

As for isolating athletes from their peers, Tovar said the institution offers numerous programs geared toward helping athletes settle in academically and on campus, including a program called Hawkeye Life, with a rigorous course on balancing athletics and academics. Athletes are also encouraged to participate in the student government and campus programs, she said.

Meanwhile, Iowa State requires athletes in both residential and online courses to meet face-to-face with professors for progress updates throughout the semester; athletes can ask detailed questions about upcoming assignments at that time. The university registrar’s office also compares grade distribution reports for student athletes with the general student body. Thus far, the institution hasn’t detected any differences with athletes taking online courses, Ayeni said.

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