Need 3 Quick Credits to Play Ball? Call Western Oklahoma

Brett Deering for The Chronicle

You've probably never heard of Western Oklahoma State College. But call almost any major athletics department, and staff there know it well.

Its name comes up whenever athletes get themselves in a jam: They've failed a class. They've dropped another. Maybe they're just short on credits. But they still want to play.

Western Oklahoma gives them a chance, offering three credits in two weeks—and for less than $400. Almost as appealing: The community college mails out transcripts the day after classes end, allowing players to get back on the field with minimal disruption.

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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.

It's not just the speedy credit that appeals to many players. According to dozens of academic advisers, athletes, and coaches, Western Oklahoma offers some of the easiest classes around. One Division I football player who reads at a fifth-grade level completed a three-credit health class in three sittings, his academic counselor says. Other students struggling to stay above a 2.0 on their own campus have landed A's and B's from Western Oklahoma—all in the academic blink of an eye.

Eric C. Liles Jr., a senior linebacker at Dakota State University, which has an NAIA program in South Dakota, signed up for a two-week sociology course at Western Oklahoma after falling behind in one of his traditional classes. He heard about the college from a coach who sends the team regular e-mails suggesting Western's online courses.

3 Credits in 10 Days

Below are three of the two-week courses offered by Western Oklahoma State College. In a short video, each instructor describes course expectations.

3 Credits in 10 Days

Cultural Anthropology

Expectations include:

  1. Understanding the customs of sex, marriage, and family.
  2. Comprehending the place of kinship and other methods of grouping.
  3. Recognizing the role of spirituality and the supernatural.

The class was so short, Mr. Liles didn't buy the textbook—and, as it turns out, he didn't need to. He says he aced the tests by looking at a handful of videos and slides. In other classes, students who don't pass an exam the first time are allowed to try again. And none of the exams in the two-week format are monitored.

That lack of oversight has led some athletes to turn in questionable work. One former instructor used to ask students to write a short paper about something they knew how to do. He says he was always surprised at how many baseball and basketball players described how to bake a cake.

This isn't the first time college athletes have courted controversy over academic credit. In the mid-1990s, hundreds of academically deficient players faced eligibility problems over fraudulent credits they received from Southeastern College of the Assemblies of God, a tiny college in Florida that was offering cheap, fast classes by mail. Years later Brigham Young University's independent-study courses offered many high-school athletes a tantalizing path toward NCAA initial eligibility. The NCAA shut the door on both programs but has largely stayed away from evaluating college-level courses, leaving that process to individual colleges.

Western Oklahoma State's leaders say that they are committed to ensuring academic quality, and that they have taken steps to safeguard the classes' integrity, including timing tests and locking down browsers during exams so students can't search the Web for answers. The college doesn't offer mathematics, science, or composition in the two-week format; academic leaders say such courses would be too difficult to complete in that time. And faculty members, who must approve all courses, say the 10-day content is the same as is taught during a regular semester.

Sylvia Manning, president of the Higher Learning Commission of the North Central Association of Colleges and Schools, which is Western Oklahoma's accreditor, had not heard of its 10-day classes. In an interview with The Chronicle, she raised questions about the compressed time frame.

United States House Committee on Education and the Workforce

“Two weeks is pushing it if you’re talking about three semester credits. In two weeks, I would have a lot of doubt.”
—Sylvia Manning, president of Western Oklahoma's accreditor

"Two weeks is pushing it if you're talking about three semester credits," she says. "In two weeks, I would have a lot of doubt."

When visiting a campus, she says, accrediting teams tend to focus on an institution's degree-granting programs. "But if you are marketing something that, for example, is dubious but you're not awarding degrees on it, it is still a concern," says Ms. Manning, whose agency came under fire in 2010 for failing to set minimum standards for classroom time.

She says she would also worry about a large number of athletes' taking online classes somewhere: "It's a particular problem because of the whole issue of keeping athletes qualified academically when they have no interest in being serious students."

***

Located among the wheat and cotton fields of Altus, Okla., Western Oklahoma State College, formerly known as Altus Junior College, is 40 miles from the nearest interstate and more than two hours from Oklahoma City, the closest major city.

Brett Deering for The Chronicle

The college's rural location and a fast-declining population in the surrounding high plains have contributed to a slump in the number of full-time students. This fall the college enrolled about 900—nearly the same as in 1999, when, facing questions about its viability, campus leaders first tried their hand at distance education.

Western Oklahoma's online offerings expanded around the needs of Altus Air Force Base, allowing members of the military and their spouses to complete their degrees even after they transferred out. The online classes, which are also offered in four-, eight-, and 16-week formats, have also served the state's rural residents, focusing on programs like criminal justice and child development. (The college offers associate degrees in some 20 programs, including nursing, aviation, and business administration.)

Kent Brooks, a former chief technology officer and dean of distance learning at Western Oklahoma, helped start the online program and taught its first class, "Microcomputer Applications," which had 25 students. Inspired by a book called Accelerated Distance Learning, in which the author describes how he earned a four-year degree in six months for less than $5,000, Mr. Brooks helped introduce Western Oklahoma's 10-day classes and steered online operations until leaving last year.

3 Credits in 10 Days

Introduction to Micro Computer Applications

Expectations include:

  1. Creating a new folder in Windows XP.
  2. Learning to maximize, minimize, re-size, and close windows.
  3. Copying, moving, renaming, and deleting files.
  4. Finding files and folders.

Western Oklahoma has received approval from its accreditor to put all of its classes online. It now offers more than 400 course sections, with some 11,000 online students. The two-week format is the fastest-growing. Since 2009 enrollment in those classes has nearly doubled.

The college owes part of its growth to the power of the Web. Years ago Western officials bought key Internet search phrases and, much like for-profit educators, have mastered search-engine optimization. Now, when someone Googles "online winter classes" or "winter intersession," Western Oklahoma State College pops up among the leading results, alongside institutions like the University of Connecticut and the University of Kentucky.

Western Oklahoma has attracted online students from 48 states, in part by appealing to those who demand good service and flexible scheduling. The college offers its intersession classes 12 weeks a year, during December, July, and other periods between traditional semesters. It keeps the courses relatively small—about 35 students per instructor—and requires instructors to answer students' questions promptly. Sometimes staff members have even returned calls on Christmas Day.

"Students don't care where it comes from, they just want the course," says Mr. Brooks, who is now director of information technology at Casper College, in Wyoming. "And if you don't provide it in a time frame convenient to them, you're toast."

Soon after starting the online program, college officials got a call from the president of the Altus Chamber of Commerce, who helped them realize the potential market for athletes. The president put Western leaders in touch with her son-in-law, who was a baseball coach at El Paso Community College. Several El Paso players enrolled in Mr. Brooks's microcomputing class, and the word started to spread among coaches.

In the past, when major-college athletes needed a lift, academic advisers would often hunt for community-college classes near their families' homes, helping them enroll over a winter or summer break. Now, with the proliferation of distance providers, it's a simpler search.

"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.

***

Western Oklahoma is not the only college with a popular online program for athletes. A handful of others—most prominently Cloud County Community College, in Kansas, and Adams State University, in Colorado—also offer fast-paced courses that help students stay eligible for sports. Players from the University of Maryland, Colorado State University, and many Western colleges have taken online classes from those institutions.

Many online programs saw a surge in 2009, when the NCAA began requiring junior-college athletes to complete six credits of English and three hours of mathematics before they could transfer to four-year institutions. Another change, approved last year by the NCAA, made it easier for athletes at four-year colleges to use online credits from any accredited institution to meet the association's credit-hour and progress-toward-degree requirements.

A few years ago, Chris Jeffries started noticing that many junior-college players were taking "Finite Mathematics" at Adams State. According to the online course description, that class teaches such concepts as linear programming, probability, and descriptive statistics. Adams State officials are aware that many athletes have enrolled.

Ms. Jeffries, an athletics counselor at El Camino College, in California, has a pretty good idea why: "They can't pass basic arithmetic here, but they're all passing finite math online."

Matt Nehring, chair of the mathematics department at Adams State, is not surprised that many students find the class easy, as it is the university's lowest-level general-education math course. Even so, about a quarter of students get below a C or withdraw from the class, he says.

Travis Coons enrolled in an online math class last year, after his final season playing football at Mt. San Antonio College, in California. Now a junior and the starting kicker at the University of Washington, he says he likes online classes because they allow him to work independently. Some of the courses he took at the community college didn't transfer to Washington, so he hurried online. "It's a good way to get that boost," he says. "But you've got to make sure the classes are legitimate."

Otto Greule Jr., Getty Images

Athletes at the U. of Washington have gained credits from Western Oklahoma and other online programs on their way to the university. “It’s a good way to get that boost,” says Travis Coons, the Huskies’ kicker. “But you’ve got to make sure the classes are legitimate.”

In California and other cash-strapped states, players sometimes turn to distance education because they can't get into courses on their own campuses. But more often, they've gotten themselves into an eligibility pinch, says Jon P. Healy, an athletics academic counselor at the University of Maryland at College Park, whose graduate research has focused on athletes' use of online education.

That situation has arisen a few times at the University of Tennessee at Chattanooga, says Lisa Tarr, an athletics academic adviser and coordinator of student-support services. "Kids get themselves in trouble and say, 'Oh, I'm going to go take a Western Oklahoma.'"

Athletes on her campus have taken online classes in personal health, nutrition, and criminal justice from Western Oklahoma. Grades in those classes don't count toward their institutional GPA's. Players' scholarships don't cover the cost, but with their eligibility on the line, they can usually find a way to come up with $387.

Rashad Allison was six hours short when he tried to transfer to Arkansas State University to play basketball a few years ago. A coach recommended Western Oklahoma, so he signed up for a two-week speech course.

A mostly B and C student, Mr. Allison got an A in the class. He just wishes he had heard about Western Oklahoma sooner: "If I could've done those type of assignments all through college, I would have."

In coming years, more players might share that sentiment. Junior-college transfers will soon need a 2.5 grade-point average to be eligible for Division I sports (before, they needed only a 2.0). That could lead even more athletes to consider places like Western Oklahoma, coaches say.

At Louisiana Tech University, four or five football players have already taken Western Oklahoma courses. The team, which has been ranked among the nation's top 25 this season, includes 21 junior-college transfers. Most players with Western Oklahoma credits took online classes there before transferring. But some football, track, and baseball athletes have taken Western Oklahoma courses after arriving at Louisiana Tech, says Missy Farrar, associate registrar for NCAA academic compliance.

Players with academic deficiencies are often the ones who sign up for Western Oklahoma's online classes. That concerns Lisa Merritt, who taught speech communications at Louisiana Tech for 11 years before becoming assistant athletics director for academics.

"I feel like my job is for these kids to be employable, and they're shortcutting the system or getting passed through," she says. "I don't know if they're learning anything other than an easy way out."

Kay Caples and Brandy Broome learned that lesson the hard way. The former junior-college standouts were ruled ineligible last month after they tried to transfer bogus credits to play women's basketball at the University of Mississippi. The controversy led the university to fire the head coach and two of his assistants. The NCAA is investigating.

It's not clear yet what credits were in question. But one person familiar with the investigation told The Chronicle that Ms. Caples and Ms. Broome took online classes this summer from Western Oklahoma.

***

In September, Western Oklahoma officials allowed a Chronicle reporter to look at certain assignments and test questions in several of its two-week classes. In addition, The Chronicle spoke with eight administrators and faculty members there about academic expectations.

Western Oklahoma officials expect students to spend an average of about five hours a day completing their class work, or some 50 hours over a two-week course. All classes have required reading, along with short assignments and papers and a handful of tests.

The officials defended the rigor of the classes, arguing that the assignments and exam questions come from textbook publishers' test banks, which are produced by faculty members throughout the country. All instructors must have completed a minimum of 18 hours of graduate work in their field, and each one receives regular training in online instruction, the officials said.

"We are not a course mill," Phil Birdine, the college's president, said during one interview. "Course mills offer any classes regardless of faculty credential."

Brett Deering for The Chronicle

“We are not a course mill. Course mills offer any classes regardless of faculty credential.”
—Phil Birdine, president of Western Oklahoma State College

Western's 30 or so intersession courses are a mixed bag, with some clearly setting a higher bar than others. A 60-question, multiple-choice exam in "Introductory Sociology" requires, among other things, an understanding of Talcott Parsons's equilibrium model. An assignment in that class asks students to write a two-page report about social norms, "citing examples, sanctions associated with, and consequences for violations of these norms within a group or society." Another class asks students to discuss whether the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II was a violation of their civil rights.

The only prerequisite in other classes seems to be common sense. In one course, an instructor taught students to use Microsoft Excel by asking them to enter a number on a spreadsheet. Students also learned to create a slide in PowerPoint.

True or false, one nutrition test asks: The ingredients on a food label are listed in descending order of calories. Another asks whether children who eat breakfast are likelier to have better mental performance or to fall asleep in school. Assignments in that class require students to briefly explain why Americans are so obese, and why they themselves do or don't take vitamins.

Online forums are designed to spark critical thinking in students, says Chrystal Overton, dean of technical education, who has taught the nutrition class. But many already know plenty about the subject matter: "A lot of the students are athletes, and they are very conditioned," she says. "They'll say things like, 'I work out X times a day and try to eat high protein.'"

3 Credits in 10 Days

Nutrition

Expectations include:

  1. Understanding what constitutes good nutrition.
  2. Analyzing a nutritious and safe diet.
  3. Identifying the groups of food nutrients.
  4. Understanding the relationship between nutrition and good health.

Ms. Overton acknowledges that the class is not designed to be overly rigorous. "It's not a superhard course at all—it's basic nutrition," she says. "It's difficult if the students don't do the work. But it's not the rigor of physics."

Courses that some students find easy may be difficult for others, Western Oklahoma leaders say. And sometimes players expecting an easy A don't always get what they want. That was the case at California State University at Fullerton, where some athletes who recently took "Officiating I" and "Officiating II" were tripped up when they didn't show up knowing the rules for certain sports.

But it is the courses that cover the most ground that have raised the most questions. Here's the course description of "General Humanities II," taught by Michael Coker, an English instructor at Western Oklahoma. "We start with the Renaissance and move to the present," he says in an online video. "We cover art, culture, society, religion, politics. The humanities is a very broad topic, and we cover essentially everything that leads up to our modern society, the ideas that inform our modern world."

Sounds like a really interesting class—but seven centuries in 50 hours? That may seem daunting, Mr. Coker acknowledges. "But I've designed the class to be doable in 10 days," he says in the video. "If you don't have a lot going on in those 10 days, the class is not overly difficult."

Jason Morrison was an early skeptic of compressed formats. Western Oklahoma's dean of arts and sciences teaches "American History (1865-present)." He has to cover about a decade and a half per day, but he doesn't feel that he's slighting students.

His goal, he says, is not to teach students about specific historical moments, but to help them think more deeply about certain events.

But if courses are not stringent enough, or if they fail to adequately prepare students for subsequent classes, that can put students at a serious disadvantage, says Barmak Nassirian, a consultant who was associate executive director of the American Association of Collegiate Registrars and Admissions Officers.

"The challenge of being too lenient to a student is that it can be damaging to that student," he says. But that really matters, he adds, only if those students are looking for a meaningful degree, not just eligibility to play sports.

***

Registrars and campus leaders who determine academic credit say they usually can't tell from transcripts how quickly students completed classes. They also say they would have little reason to deny credits, as long as they come from an accredited institution.

"This sounds bad, but we take them at face value," says Phil Caffrey, director of admissions operations and policy at Iowa State University, which has accepted athletes' credits from Western Oklahoma. "If the official transcript is showing coursework from an accredited university, we award the transfer credit."

After learning about Western Oklahoma's 10-day classes, Ms. Manning, president of the North Central Association's Higher Learning Commission, signaled that the accreditor may take a harder look at the college.

"We haven't been there since 2008, ... so obviously we have not reviewed those courses," she says. "When the institution comes up for review again, we would look at these questions."

Western Oklahoma is not due for its next comprehensive evaluation until 2017. In the meantime, Mr. Caffrey and others say, the NCAA should consider stepping in to regulate the validity of its courses.

"If it's apparent that a course is covering way too much material in way too small an amount of time, or the standards are so lax that there's nothing to assure the student is really the one taking the exams, those are places where the NCAA could intervene," says Mr. Caffrey, who has worked in athletics admissions for more than 25 years.

The NCAA is aware that an increasing number of athletes are taking short-format online courses. Its officials say they even keep a list of the places where players turn most often (although they would not provide The Chronicle with a copy). The association has no plans to get involved at Western Oklahoma. But that could change in coming months, one NCAA leader said, as the association weighs possible changes to its academic-fraud policies.

For its part, Western Oklahoma has no plans to scale back its two-week courses. They brought in more than $2-million last year in gross revenue, which officials say has helped the college stave off cuts in academic programs and improve its online infrastructure.

Several weeks after The Chronicle started asking questions about their courses, Western Oklahoma officials said they temporarily removed one of them from the intersession lineup. College officials would not say which class it was, and they insisted that the program still met its academic standards.

"It wasn't like it had nothing in it and it was really easy," says Melissa Smith, the intersession coordinator. "We just wanted to add more to it," including more tools to help students learn.

Lisa Greenlee, the college's vice president for academic and student-support services, says the lessons it has learned from online education have helped it provide better services to all of its students. And she insists that Western Oklahoma will do whatever it takes to ensure the integrity of its curriculum.

Brett Deering for The Chronicle

Jason Morrison (left), dean of arts and sciences at Western Oklahoma State College, teaches 150 years of U.S. history in his two-week course. Lisa Greenlee, a vice president, says embracing online education has helped the college serve all students better. Chrystal Overton is dean of technical education; Melissa Smith coordinates online education.

"I will not oversee something that isn't of high quality. ... It won't happen under my watch," she says. "If you knew me and our administrative team, we go to great lengths to ensure that what we're doing has rigor and quality.

"If that means hiring someone full-time whose job is to make sure that every class is not substandard, or to make sure we integrate technology to watch students as they take exams, that's what we will do."

But for now, top athletes continue to turn to Western Oklahoma for the crutch they need. This summer, a former quarterback from an elite program signed up for "Music Appreciation" and "Federal Government" during two of the college's 10-day tracks, his academic adviser told The Chronicle.

The student, who had struggled to stay afloat academically at his university, landed an A and a B from Western Oklahoma. That helped him gain eligibility at a community college, where he is playing this fall.

Those hours will be on his transcript when he tries to transfer to another major-college team next year. With any luck, they won't stand in his way of leading another storied program to the top.