[UCF Today Note: UCF has never had a team penalized for low APR standings.]

The University of Connecticut men’s basketball team is the reigning NCAA champion, but it is also one of a handful of marquee basketball and football programs to receive penalties from the association this week for poor academic performance.

The Huskies’ score of 893 out of 1,000 points on the NCAA’s annual academic-progress report, released on Tuesday, was well below the cutoff point drawing a penalty of reduced scholarships for the team. Five other basketball and football programs in major athletic conferences scored below the NCAA’s benchmark of 925 out of a possible 1,000, down from a dozen big-time teams last year.

In basketball the penalized teams included Arkansas (892), Georgia Tech (915), and Louisiana State (905). Both Arkansas and Georgia Tech’s men’s basketball programs received penalties two years ago. The elite football teams receiving penalties this year for their low academic-progress rates were Louisville (908) and Maryland (922).

NCAA officials on Tuesday credited the reduced number of teams receiving penalties to a willingness among most athletic departments to make athletes’ academic performance a priority. Over all, 350 of the NCAA’s roughly 6,400 Division I teams did not meet the academic mark, but just 103 were penalized. The scores represent a four-year average of teams’ academic-progress rates from the 2006-7 to 2009-10 academic years.

The NCAA dealt the harshest punishment, a one-year restriction on postseason competition, to eight teams at seven institutions this year. (Last year only one program, the men’s basketball team at Portland State University, received that penalty.) All were men’s basketball and football programs. In basketball the penalty went to California State University at Northridge (871), Chicago State (823), Grambling State (873), and the University of Louisiana at Monroe (852).

In football the teams suffering a championship ban were Idaho State (888) and Jackson State (879). Southern University at Baton Rouge received such a ban in both football (899) and men’s basketball (852).

Though pleased by the increased number of teams meeting the NCAA’s benchmark score, Mark A. Emmert, the association’s president, said Tuesday he was “very concerned” about the prevalence of historically black colleges among the low-scoring programs. The NCAA, he told reporters on a conference call, has a “special obligation” to work with, and possibly provide additional resources to, the historically black colleges and other institutions with limited financial resources that garnered many of this year’s stiffest sanctions.

The NCAA’s annual analysis of the academic performance of Division I athletes, now in its seventh year, looks at athletes’ real-time progress toward degrees. This year the average academic-progress rate for all NCAA sports increased by two points, to 970. Baseball, men’s basketball, and football—the three sports that NCAA officials have singled out as their top priority in improving academic performance—all posted increases in their rates from last year.

Those improvements, said Walter Harrison, chair of the NCAA’s Committee on Academic Performance, signaled the start of a new chapter in monitoring the academic success of college athletes. “We’ve been doing this now for eight to 10 years,” Mr. Harrison, who is also president of the University of Hartford, said during a conference call with reporters. In August his committee will present a proposal to the NCAA’s Division I Board of Directors that the NCAA adopt a single-penalty structure for academic-progress rates, and raise the cutoff score to 930.

That benchmark could possibly increase further, to 940, he added. “We want to keep getting better,” he said. “We don’t want to settle in at any particular rate.”

Sport by Sport

Despite the overall improvement, the report also highlighted many challenges that remain—particularly at institutions where resources are strained. The vast majority of the 350 Division I teams that posted scores below the NCAA’s benchmark for acceptable academic progress are at regional public institutions, many of them historically black colleges, that are not members of major athletic conferences and do not enjoy the robust revenue streams that, at larger programs, help to pay for extensive academic-support services for athletes.

NCAA officials say the academic-progress rate has become a key academic-management tool for athletics departments and university administrators as they pinpoint academic trouble spots in their sports programs. Teams with scores below 925—which correlates roughly to a 50-percent success rate in graduating players within six years—can lose scholarships. Scores below 900 can trigger stricter sanctions, like restrictions on practice time and postseason play.

As in the past, only a fraction of the teams posting low scores were penalized this week. The NCAA does not punish institutions it deems to have limited resources, and some colleges with low scores are able to avoid penalties by working with the association to create “academic improvement plans.” Compared with the 103 teams that were penalized this week, 137 teams received penalties last year, while 177 did two years ago.

Of the marquee sports, baseball and men’s basketball posted the largest increases in scores from last year, both increasing by five points, to 959 and 945, respectively. Football’s improvement was more modest, rising two points, to 946.

Football programs in Division I-AA appear to struggle more than any other men’s sport, with the lowest score, 943, of all men’s teams this year. Indeed, of the low-performing teams, men’s basketball and football still dominate, together representing more than 40 percent of all low-scoring teams.

Women’s sports performed better than men’s sports, with nearly all squads posting four-year averages well above the cutoff. Of all teams that scored below 925, less than a third were women’s. Women’s bowling, with a four-year average of 952, lagged far behind all other women’s teams.

The full report, including a searchable database, is available at the NCAA’s website.

Source: The Chronicle of Higher Education, NCAA Penalizes 103 Teams for Missing Academic-Progress Mark, by Libby Sander, May 24, 2011