Online Courses Keep Grades Up, Athletes In Play

Host Scott Simon speaks to Brad Wolverton from the The Chronicle of Higher Education about his recent profile of Western Oklahoma State College. The school's online courses are popular with NCAA student athletes at risk of losing their eligibility to participate in sports.

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SCOTT SIMON, HOST:

And we're coming up to the beginning of the college football bowl season. Some of the players you'll see on the field are there with the help of a school whose uniforms they're not wearing. Western Oklahoma State College offers a pretty easy way for athletes to get credits and stay on the field, but the school's business model might be in danger. Brad Wolverton profiled the school for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Thanks for being with us.

BRAD WOLVERTON: Thanks for having me.

SIMON: What's Western Oklahoma do for college athletes?

WOLVERTON: Well, Western Oklahoma State College is a tiny community college and a couple of hours from Oklahoma City. And it offers two-week classes. So, in December athletes can take a two-week class and basically get three credit hours and then get right back on the field in January if they're in any sort of danger of not having any credits to stay eligible for NCAA sports.

SIMON: Are these all basket weaving classes?

WOLVERTON: You know, we came across a bunch of classes. They have about 30 online classes and they include all kinds of things - mostly electives. But some of the classes include things like microcomputer applications, where you're taught to do things like create a new folder in a program like Microsoft Word and create a slide in PowerPoint. There's a nutrition class, an online class there too, that one of the assignments asks you to basically say do you or don't you take vitamins and why? So, you know, in some cases, as one of the instructors said, these are not super-hard courses at all.

SIMON: And academic institutions accept these credits.

WOLVERTON: I talked to institutions all over the country, you know, from the most elite research institutions, like the University of Washington, all kind of flagship schools, like Florida State and NC State, Iowa state. They basically all accept the credits. Many junior college or community college student athletes who are transferring into NCAA schools take the classes because they're short of credits, so they can't play sports. A lot of times, players on a four-year campus will be, you know, they'll have to drop a class late in the semester or they'll fail a class and they need those hours just to stay eligible to play sports. You know, as one person says, you know, if you get in trouble, I'll just pick up a Western Oklahoma. So, it has actually become a noun.

SIMON: Western Oklahoma, from what I saw on their website, they don't consider themselves a diploma mill.

WOLVERTON: They don't. I mean, they were very open and transparent. You know, they opened up some of their online classes for me to look in on. They're not ashamed at all of what they're doing. They say that you basically are required to do the same amount of work in a two-week period that you would have to do in a 16-week period, which is hard for some people to believe if, you know, if you take a class like American History 1865-present, where you have to basically cover a decade and a half in a day.

SIMON: Congratulations are due to you because your report came out and the accrediting agency for higher education in this country acted.

WOLVERTON: Well, that's right. There are regional accrediting bodies, and this one, the Higher Learning Commission, they basically stepped in and announced an investigation into the college and its use of these accelerated courses, saying that the article we did had raised some serious questions about the rigor of the 10-day courses and whether these classes should be allowed to award three semester credits.

SIMON: So, Western Oklahoma could have to make some changes.

WOLVERTON: Yeah, and it's a pretty rare step. I mean, the accrediting group will visit early next year and basically investigate whether the classes meet their standards. And they could issue some sort of sanction or they could require the college to stop offering the classes. And then these would go away for college athletes.

SIMON: We've been talking about how college athletes can take advantage of these courses, but no doubt there are people listening who are thinking, wait a minute, for $400, I guess the courses cost, typically, and two weeks of my time I can get a college credit?

WOLVERTON: Absolutely. Anybody can do it. And, you know, they estimate that about half of their students in these two-week classes are athletes, but there are members of the military, there are people in rural locations, there are people who just want to finish their degrees faster, wherever they are, and there's colleges all over the country accepting these credits.

SIMON: Brad Wolverton, senior writer who covers sports for the Chronicle of Higher Education. Thanks so much.

WOLVERTON: Thank you.

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