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NCAA changes initial eligibility rules for athletes

It was not a big problem for most Princeton student-athletes. No one was ever prevented from playing. But for a small number of Tigers, the recent ruling by the NCAA to amend its definition of core courses — one of several criteria used for determining eligibility — was very good news.

Although students must still maintain a minimum grade-point average during high school while taking four years of English, two years of mathematics, two years of natural or physical sciences and two years of social science, the requirement that 75 percent of the class content be in the subject area for which it was counted as a core-course has been eliminated.

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In the past, the NCAA's Initial-Eligibility Clearinghouse decided whether or not courses met that threshold, not local high schools or state school boards. But the NCAA board of directors, representing Division I, met Jan. 12 and approved this alteration. The change becomes effective for student-athletes first entering college on or after August 1, 2000.

"It came about collectively because of the involvement with the high school community," NCAA Director of Membership Services Bob Oliver said. "They said 'Here's what's going on and some of the criteria that you have there is very hard to define.' "

Typically, Princeton students did not have to worry about meeting minimum class requirements, since all experience rigorous secondary schooling. But with charter schools — which advocate a more creative and interdisciplinary learning process — increasing in prominence, and with a more general trend to blur the lines between traditionally divided subjects developing in education, the 75 percent mandate was becoming less tenable.

"I think that it's the kind of thing I think at face value, people would probably say why is this even an issue for Princeton students? We have the best and brightest in the country, it shouldn't make a difference," Assistant Princeton Athletic Director Michael Cross said. "But Princeton gets students who go through some very creative and demanding high schools and preparatory schools and this will make qualifying for some of these students easier."

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According to Cross, students were forced to send in copies of class syllabi, tables of contents of books that were used as well as descriptions of the courses themselves — including hours spent in class. No written work from the classes was required because the NCAA did not dispute the grades recorded, but rather the courses' academic content.

The current criteria does demand that a course count toward a graduation requirement, be considered college preparatory by the high school and be taught by a qualified instructor as defined by the appropriate academic authority. Classes must also be taught at or above the high school's regular academic level, meaning that remedial classes do not qualify. Furthermore, math classes must be at a level at least as high as Algebra I.

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Still, the changes in policy — specifically the elimination of the 75 percent requirement — are reasons for optimism among prospective college athletes and Departments of Athletics.

'More latitude'

"These new definitions will give more latitude to how a student might fill a half-credit," Cross said. "For example, the NCAA didn't necessarily consider media-based courses to be legitimate core-courses, where the high schools may have considered that to be the case.

"In some ways it sort of mirrors national debates of where educational policy be made. Should a core-course be defined by NCAA or the local school board? And the NCAA, for the longest time, decided they should be the arbiter and decision maker in that regard."

According to a press release by the NCAA, less than 1 percent of student-athletes were denied certification solely because they failed to meet the core-course requirement. The organization estimates that the changes will have "minimal impact" on the number of students certified by the NCAA Clearinghouse, the central body that examines all applications for eligibility.

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Although Cross emphasized that few Princeton students had been adversely affected, "the process will be less troublesome," he said.

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