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Does the NCAA Allow Online Courses or Competency-Based Education?

CompetencyWorks Blog

Author(s): Nick Sproull and Susan Patrick

Issue(s): Federal Policy, Modernize HEA

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Nick Sproull;
Associate Director of High School Review at the National Collegiate Athletic Association

Does the NCAA allow online courses for high school athletes to be eligible for college?  The short answer is yes, as long as they are college preparatory in nature for core courses and exhibit clear characteristics where the nature of instruction, assessment and interaction (with evidence) are all college preparatory.

I get asked this question over and over about the NCAA and online courses.

Why is the NCAA in the business of reviewing high school courses in the first place?  I have found the NCAA High School Review Committee to be very focused on helping make sure student athletes are prepared academically for future success.

In a discussion about the NCAA’s role, the NCAA notes:
Intercollegiate athletics is a high-stakes environment in which we have witnessed both adults and students looking for ways to “game the system,” by presenting documents that might suggest that students are prepared for college-level academic work though the opposite may be true.  The NCAA is in a unique position in that it must be open to new and innovative learning models while simultaneously being mindful of the propensities for abuse.  Because the NCAA observed alarming patterns of student-athletes attempting to gain a “quick fix” to their academic troubles through online courses in the last decade, rules were adopted by the NCAA membership in 2010 to allow for the approval of online and blended learning coursework that meets specific requirements to ensure college-readiness.

The other question is does the NCAA allow high school students to “test out” rather than taking a core course where they demonstrate the work?  The answer here is simple: no, they do not allow “testing out”.

Below, I will attempt to explain what the NCAA does allow and doesn’t allow (specific to testing out and also with online courses).

The NCAA does not allow “testing out”.

To determine eligibility of incoming student-athletes, the NCAA does accept (within the process of the course reviews) a number of high-quality online courses as long as they are college preparatory in nature. This means the online course has evidence of a teacher working with a student to provide 1) instruction that is college preparatory in nature, 2) assessments that are college preparatory in nature with responsive feedback on how to improve toward college-readiness, 3) a syllabus, proposed timeline and sequence of lessons that a student must master to complete the course.   The NCAA does support mastery-based online courses that show the nature of instruction is college preparatory and the nature of assessments are performance-based, demonstrating through a performance of the student the knowledge, skills and competencies required for each lesson.  The NCAA does allow students the ability to move at a flexible pace – but that pacing must be “negotiated pacing” (they are fine with students moving at a flexible pace, but it must be within a defined timeframe) within the framework of expectations for the course. There is a questionnaire that may be completed by educational institutions that asks questions about the instruction, teaching models, pacing, timeframes and other important details that examine quality of online and non-traditional courses.

The NCAA allows for diversity in the offerings of non-traditional courses, and there is no one size fits all set of answers to the questionnaire, but the schools need to be able to provide a reasonable response for the typical amount of time that a student takes to finish a particular online course, provide the nature of instruction, interaction and the nature of assessments that demonstrate a college preparatory curriculum.  After reviewing these materials, the NCAA may determine whether programs are college preparatory in nature and align with the NCAA’s core curriculum requirements. When the student completes such of course, they should have evidence of the student learning at a college preparatory level.

iNACOL has asked the NCAA to do a number of presentations on webinars and at our annual conference on their high school course review process and eligibility for online courses. These webinars hosting the NCAA describe their policies and how they work with online programs to approve online courses that are college preparatory. Here are links to the presentations:

NCAA Eligibility Requirements for Online Courses Webinar (September 2012)

NCAA Eligibility Center: Presentation for Beginners (iNACOL VSS, October 2012)
Recording and Slides:

NCAA Eligibility Center: Presentation on Advanced Issues (iNACOL VSS, October 2012) Recording and Slides:

The NCAA staff has contributed to a number of iNACOL publications and committees pertaining to questions of high-quality online and blended learning:

iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Courses
• Originally published in 2007, iNACOL released the National Standards for Quality Online Courses, version 2 in October 2011. The standards selected are the results of a research review and survey of online course quality criteria. These quality standards were evaluated and assembled into an easy to use document for evaluating online courses with common benchmarks.

iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Teaching
• In October 2011, iNACOL released the National Standards for Quality Online Teaching, version 2.  iNACOL organized a team of experts consisting of online teachers, professional developers, instructional designers, researchers, course developers, and administrators to review these new standards and the new literature on the topic

iNACOL National Standards for Quality Online Programs
• In October 2009, iNACOL announced the release of ground-breaking quality standards titled National Standards for Quality Online Programs. This publication is designed to provide states, districts, online programs, accreditation agencies and other organizations with a set of over-arching quality guidelines for online programs in several categories: leadership, instruction, content, support services and evaluation.

iNACOL Quality Assurance Project
•    In 2012 iNACOL published a national report on measuring outcomes to provide the field with a quality assurance framework.  Measuring Quality from Inputs to Outcomes: Creating Student Learning Performance Metrics and Quality Assurance for Online Schools identified key issues in the need for quality assurance and the challenges posed to policymakers. This report highlights performance indicators: proficiency, individual student learning growth, closing the achievement gap, graduation rate, and college and career readiness. The report assists policy makers, authorizers, evaluators, program administrators and educational leaders in establishing performance-based metrics for measuring quality for full-time and supplemental online courses.

As an example of what isn’t qualifying (in my book) as college prep — An example of an online/blended course that would not be approved by the NCAA is a course in which interaction with the instructor occurs only on an as-needed basis or one in which the interaction is supervisory in nature with no instructive feedback to the student.  Similarly, courses that can be completed in abbreviated timeframes with no agreed-upon pacing or instructive interaction would likely not be approved by the NCAA either.

Thank you for continuing to ask important questions around college preparedness and academic readiness for students.  Please let us know how we can provide assistance.


Susan Patrick, International Association for K-12 Online Learning  (iNACOL)

Nick Sproull, NCAA