College sports programs tiptoed Monday into an uncertain new world of academic accountability, as the National Collegiate Athletic Association unveiled a complex system for monitoring the classroom progress of Division I athletes and gave the public its first glimpse  at how individual colleges fared under the new standards.
The system could eventually punish institutions that fail to keep their athletes moving toward a degree. But no penalties are attached to this first year's reports, and the NCAA has modified the system in recent weeks in ways that delay or soften the potential blows against sports programs.
The NCAA released  summary data for the 2003-4 academic year showing that 7.2 percent of the 5,720 teams in Division I, or more than 400, fell below the threshold the association has set for subjecting programs to potential penalties. The vast majority of those teams are in baseball, football, and men's basketball. About half of all Division I institutions have at least one team that falls below the new mark and could lose at least one scholarship next year, when the first penalties take effect.
Association officials have worked for more than two years to toughen the NCAA's academic rules.  A chief goal has been designing new ways to gauge how successful colleges are at educating (or at least providing degrees to) the athletes who represent them on the playing fields, and to hold institutions accountable if they fail.
College officials have long complained that the primary measure used to gauge athletes' academic success -- the six-year federal graduation rate -- pains an out-of-date and incomplete picture, by penalizing colleges for athletes in good academic standing who leave before they graduate, and failing to give institutions credit for athletes who transfer in and graduate.
The NCAA committee studying this problem produced two new measures. Because it still needs to comply with federal law requiring the reporting of graduation rates, the association will release a refined graduation rate in the fall that treats transfer students more favorably. It will in most instances make colleges' graduate rates look better than they do now.
The second, brand-new measurement, the Academic Progress Rate, will become the central way the NCAA monitors athletes' academic progress. It is aimed at providing a real-time look at how individual teams are faring at keeping players on track to a degree. Each player on a given team's roster at the start of an academic year can receive a maximum of two points per term: one for finishing that term having met the NCAA's newly toughened academic progress standards and the institution's own academic rules, and another for staying enrolled at the institution.
So an athlete who stays eligible and enrolled at the institution for both semesters of a given year gets a total of four points. An athlete who was academically eligible but chose to leave the college (to transfer or to play professionally, say) in the middle of the spring semester would get three points, while a player who flunked out in the first semester would get zero points for the year.
A team's APR, then, is calculated by dividing the total number of points earned by the players on its roster for the year by the total number of points possible, then multiplying by 1,000. So a team with 10 athletes, all of whom stay eligible and remain at the college, would have a perfect score of 1000. A 10-person team that had one player flunk out in the first semester would have a score of 900 (36 points divided by 40 points times 1,000).
At a meeting last month, the association's Board of Directors set the cutoff point at which a team would be punished at 925, which equates, over a four-year period, to a graduation rate of 50 percent. (In other words, if a team had an APR of 925, over four years it will have graduated only half its players.)
One set of "historical" penalties, which won't begin taking effect until four years of data have been collected -- at the earliest in the fall of 2007 -- are aimed at targeting institutions or teams that have failed to improve their performance.
A set of "contemporaneous" penalties could be imposed as soon as next winter, when a second year of data, covering the current 2004-5 academic year, is available. A team will be punished with the loss of a scholarship if it falls beneath the 925 cutoff after next year and has a player who leaves college while in poor academic standing during the course of that year.
But the board also took several steps to mitigate the timing and impact of the penalties. It created a "confidence boundary" -- comparable to a public opinion poll's margin of error -- for programs with small numbers of players, which will protect some teams that fall below the 925 threshold from being punished because of a one year statistical anomaly. Colleges will benefit from that protection for one or perhaps two more years, "consistent with the principles of accuracy and the principles of fairness," said Kevin Lennon, the NCAA's vice president of membership services.
The board also decided that no team should lose more than 10 percent of its scholarships because of these penalties. So a basketball team with 13 scholarship players, for instance, could be stripped of no more than two scholarships at any time because its players failed to make progress toward a degree, even if three or more flunked out.
"By limiting the amount of athletics aid included in the penalty, the contemporaneous penalties would serve as a catalyst to create change over the next several years where performance lags, but would not be overly punitive," said Walter Harrison, president of the University of Hartford and chairman of the NCAA's Committee on Academic Performance.
Harrison and others say the goal of the NCAA changes is to put colleges on notice that they must improve their athletes' academic performance. "For the first time, the NCAA is holding teams and institutions accountable for the academic progress and success" of their athletes, said Myles Brand, the association's president. "The goal of the academic reform package is to reinforce good behavior."
Some observers,  though, have speculated that colleges may respond to that pressure mainly by ensuring that their athletes stay eligible, whether they're learning anything or not. They note that many institutions have majors to which large numbers of their athletes are drawn, and warn colleges to be on the lookout for -- and explore the reasons for -- such clustering.
Among the findings of the NCAA report released Monday:
- Football, baseball and men's basketball are the only sports whose average APR falls below 925. The 284 Division I baseball teams posted an average APR of 922, while the 234 football and 326 men's basketball squads compiled an average APR of 923. Football and basketball teams in Division I-A, the NCAA's top competitive level, had average rates of 921 and 906, respectively.
- About 29 percent of football teams, 23 percent of baseball teams and 19 percent of men's basketball teams fell below the APR threshold.
- The highest APR -- 981 -- was achieved by three women's sports: field hockey, lacrosse and rowing. Three other women's teams -- gymnastics (979), ice hockey (975) and swimming and diving (975) -- also had higher average APR's than any men's sport.
- The four teams in the 2004 men's basketball Final Four had the following APR's: Duke University, 960; the University of Connecticut, 852; Oklahoma State University, 920 (but with a boost from the "confidence boundary"); Georgia Institute of Technology, 962.
The University of Southern California's national championship football team has an APR of 910, though the NCAA report asterisked that score to suggest that the "confidence boundary" pushes the Trojan team above the danger mark. But USC's baseball and basketball teams both lag badly -- its basketball team's APR is 761, and the baseball team's is 878.