COVID-19 Curveball: How added eligibility impacts academics

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KNOXVILLE, Tenn. (WATE) – Before a student-athlete has the chance to walk through the door of the Thorton Center, the team inside already has a plan in mind for their time on Rocky Top.

“We kind of joke around, it’s not about a matter of if you’re going to graduate, it’s when you’re going to graduate and how many degrees are you going to have when you’ve exhausted your eligibility,” Thornton Center Executive Director Marshall Steward said.

It’s a quip that due to recent events holds a bit more meaning. With the NCAA recently granting extended eligibility for spring sports athletes who’s seasons were impacted by COVID-19 many athletes are now extending their stay on Rocky Top which may mean adding degrees to their resumes.

Tennessee is no stranger to pivoting student-athletes academic plans, with many of their athletes completing the traditional four-year degree with eligibility left on the clock. Steward said the added eligibility from an academic advisor’s perspective could be looked at as a combination between a late-career medical red-shirt and a grad transfer.

“One thing that we do kind of philosophically is that we’re always going to develop a graduation plan on day one,” Steward said. “So there are a lot of things that are outside of a student’s control (an injury, an academic red-shirt, a regular red-shirt) that may impact the time that they have left on the clock so to speak. We’re always going to put them on the fastest path to graduation. That’s one thing that we can control and it’s one thing that can’t really be manipulated on the back end if you have your degree, you have your degree. So if we find out early on a student who was going to be here for four years is now going to be here for five or six years they’re going to stay on the same academic plan.”

For senior student-athletes who have already obtained (or will obtain at the semester’s end) their undergraduate diploma, extending their stay on Rocky Top attending school is not an option. However their way they continue their education four options:

  • Second Undergraduate Degree
  • Master’s Degree
  • A non-degree seeking graduate program
  • Graduate certificate

“In all of those scenarios a student has to be enrolled full time so that’s really a trigger there is that they have to be a full-time student, they have to be pursuing something beyond their original degree,” he said.

Being considered a “full-time” student has several definitions. In a general sense full-time enrollment is twelve credit hours for an undergraduate student, nine credit hours for a graduate student however there are some exemptions.

“If you’re enrolled in everything you need to graduate in your final term, you have the ability to only enroll in those credit hours,” he said. “So if a senior student-athlete is in their last term of enrollment and they have six hours to graduate they can enroll in just those six hours to complete their degree. That’s by way of a waiver.”

Because of the novelty of the added eligibility Steward has yet to determine how many of the spring sports athletes will return to Rocky Top for an additional year. Tennessee also has yet to determine a deadline as to when teams and players should notify the university of their decision.

“There’s been no hard and fast date set,” he said. “We’re trying to be very sensitive that we’re in the middle of a global pandemic and that everyone is learning things for the very first time.”

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