Can online students play college sports?

| TBS Staff

Are you ready to discover your college program?

Short answer, yes. Long answer, that depends. If you are a college student who enjoys the flexibility and freedom of an online education, but you also feel the irresistible pull of athletic competition, you have a few options. If your online program is affiliated with a school that has a full NCAA-certified athletics program, participation may be an option. If your online school doesn’t have a team, there may be other ways to participate in competitive sports. It’s up to you to decide how big a priority athletics are when you choose your online school.

Today, more than 460,000 college students are certified through the NCAA to play sports at the college level. Of these, more than 54,000 players get the chance each year to compete in one of 89 championship-level events in 23 different sports across three Divisions. But in order to compete, you have to be eligible.

Are you NCAA-eligible to play college sports?

This is something you should figure out even before you choose a college, whether you plan to attend school online or on-campus. Determining personal eligibility is the first hurdle you have to clear to become a college athlete (which is great practice if your chosen sport actually involves jumping hurdles).

If you want to play sports while attending college, you must first register with the NCAA Eligibility Center. It’s here that you’ll learn the requirements for becoming a college-level athlete, including academic qualifications and the rules for proving your amateur (i.e., unpaid and non-professional) status.

In most instances, graduating from high school (or at least being on track to graduate) is a common requirement for NCAA eligibility. That said, you can (and should) apply for certification prior to graduation. Beyond graduation, the terms for eligibility and access to athletic scholarships will differ between Division I, Division II, and Division III schools. In particular, while the NCAA provides eligibility and scholarship specifications for the Division I and Division II levels, Division III schools usually set their own terms of eligibility.

The NCAA Eligibility Center provides a separate portal for each Division. Check these out to learn about basic high school requirements, including the number of core courses completed, minimum GPA, and the sliding-scale GPA/test scores required at every level.

How do you determine NCAA eligibility?

In order to compete in Division I or II sports and to be eligible for an athletic scholarship as an incoming freshman, you’ll begin by creating a Certification Account.

Here, you’ll register with the NCAA, submit your SAT/ACT scores and transcript, and complete the process for receiving your Amateurism Certification. This process is necessary in order to determine your eligibility to practice and play sports at a Division I or Division II school. Take note though; you will have to pay a registration fee ($80 U.S./Canada; $135 International).

If you are contending with financial hardship, you can request a fee waiver through the application process.

If you’re planning to attend a Division III school or are undecided, the NCAA offers a portal where you can create a Profile Page, be assigned an NCAA ID, and receive important and ongoing reminders about critical instructions and deadlines for prospective NCAA athletes.

Can home school graduates play college sports?

If you’re transitioning from a home school environment and you plan to play college sports, you’ll need to consider a separate set of eligibility requirements. As a home-schooled high school graduate, you’ll need to take several steps beyond registering for your Certification Account.

First, download the Home School Toolkit to find out whether your home school experience makes you eligible to compete and how you can determine that eligibility.

You’ll also need to complete a form regarding your Home School education history, which asks for details about your home school environment, curriculum, and instruction.

Check here for additional instructions on submitting your transcript, test scores, proof of graduation and materials verifying the management, instruction, and curriculum of your home school coursework.

Can online students be NCAA-eligible?

This is a key question if you take most or all of your courses online. Unfortunately, it’s also kind of tough to answer. The NCAA provides precious little information to answer this question, which seems like an oversight if you ask us.

The NCAA’s website offers a page regarding your eligibility if you’ve taken non-traditional courses in high school, including online classes, blended learning, credit recovery, and independent study. If you are an incoming freshman who has completed any number of your core classes online or though another non-traditional method, be sure to view and adhere to the terms for eligibility listed on this page.

As for those of you planning to take online courses and participate in college sports, it appears that the NCAA has no overarching rules prohibiting your participation. We contacted the NCAA’s eligibility customer service department and representatives were unable to tell us whether or not the NCAA places restrictions on your eligibility or participation based on your online status.

We pressed to find out whether or not a student could be denied, or lose, eligibility based on their status as an online student. Again, representatives were unable to answer this question definitively one way or the other. We were told that inquiring students must reach out to individual schools at the Division I and Division II levels to find out their respective policies on the matter.

We take this to mean that the NCAA does not have a stated or explicit policy, and hence, has no particular objections to, or restrictions around, your participation in NCAA sports while attending your college through online courses.

On the other hand, the absence of such a policy may suggest that many colleges and universities have their own restrictions around participation. So the short answer is that the NCAA will likely not reject your candidacy for NCAA eligibility certification if you are attending a Division I or II school online. However, this does not guarantee that your Division I or II school will allow its online students to play sports.

Does your online school have an athletics program?

Naturally, when it comes to playing sports for your college, you’ll want to enroll in a college with a sports program. Makes sense, right? If your goal is to play at the NCAA level, be sure that your school fields a team in your chosen sport. You may be attending school online, but if it’s through a traditional state university or a noteworthy private school, there’s a good chance your school has an athletics program.

Obviously, if you want to play, a good starting point is to live in close proximity to your physical campus, even if you do attend classes online. Increasingly, students are finding good reasons to attend classes online but close to home. The chance to participate in sports is certainly one of them.

However, the accessibility of this program will depend not just on how you take your classes but on your level of athletic ability and the competitiveness of the program. To this end, check out The Dos and Don’ts of Becoming a College Athlete and make sure this is the right path for you.

Does your college have its own eligibility restrictions for online students?

Once you’ve determined that your college fields a team in your chosen sport, the next question concerns the school’s eligibility rules. While Division I and Division II schools must adhere to NCAA requirements when evaluating the academic eligibility of incoming freshmen, it is entirely up to each school to determine whether or not this eligibility extends to students who take most or all of their courses online.

This means that you must do your due diligence before committing to a school, or to its online program. If playing sports at the NCAA level and attending college online are of equal importance to you, seek out schools that are willing to accommodate the needs of student-athletes either as a matter of policy or through special arrangement.

You might start by reaching out to The Best NCAA Division I Athletics Programs for Men or The Best NCAA Division I Athletics Programs for Women. Contact your preferred schools and inquire about eligibility for online students. Every school has different rules, terms, and accommodations. And depending on your abilities as both a student and an athlete, you may find that contact with the right admissions personnel or athletics administrators could earn you considerable flexibility. This is especially true if you’re being recruited for your athletic talents. If you’d like the option of taking online courses, make this flexibility one of your requirements when weighing your options.

Are there any other ways I can get involved in sports through online college?

If you do attend a college that allows you to participate in NCAA-level sports while taking most of your classes online, great. Simply follow the eligibility certification instructions outlined above. If this is not a possibility for you, there may be a few other options.

Among them:

We’d love to hear from some Division I, II and III schools. We know that every school has its own policies. How do you handle aspiring student athletes who take their classes exclusively or mostly online? Is there any difference in their eligibility to play? Do you offer unique opportunities for athletic engagement for online students?

Tell our readers all about it in the comments section!

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