If you're looking an in-depth dissection of the NCAA's "Academic Progress Rate" for tracking athletes' performance in the classroom, you should probably go straight to the source. For our purposes, you only need to know this: As of today, the APR officially moved from the realm of math wonks into the consciousness of the average fan when the NCAA's Board of Directors finalized its decision to use the scores as a minimum requirement for bowl eligibility:
The [Division I Board of Directors] approved an implementation plan — which includes all football bowl games — that mandates a certain level of academic performance in order to participate in postseason competition. The eligibility requirement will begin phasing in with the 2012-2013 academic year.
The new post-season eligibility structure will take effect in the 2012-13 academic year, with a two-year implementation window before the benchmark moves from 900 to 930. For access to post-season competition in 2012-13 and 2013-14, teams must achieve a 900 multi-year APR or a 930 average over the most recent two years to be eligible.
In 2014-15, teams that don't achieve the 930 benchmark for their four-year APR or at least a 940 average for the most recent two years will be ineligible for post-season competition. In 2015-16, the 930 benchmark for post-season competition participation — and additional penalties — will be implemented fully. The APR requirement for post-season competition participation would be waived only in extraordinary circumstances.
Translated, all of that means at least half the players on the field in bowl games are expected to earn their degrees: A 930 APR score predicts roughly a 50 percent Graduation Success Rate, which measures players' progress toward that all-important piece of paper.
Sorry, nerds: They're not trying to engineer a BCS Championship Game between Vanderbilt and Northwestern, or to force Alabama and Florida State to start recruiting valedictorians. As bars go, frankly this one isn't all that high: Of the 64 Division I-A/Bowl Subdivision schools that appeared in a bowl game last season, only eight of them — Louisville, UTEP, Tulsa, Michigan, Southern Miss, BYU, Maryland and N.C. State — turned in an APR score below 930 between the 2006-07 and 2009-10 academic years, according to the NCAA's database.
Among the "Big Six" BCS conferences, the SEC had exactly zero schools below the new benchmark in that four-year window, and the ACC (Maryland), Big Ten (Michigan), Big 12 (Colorado), Pac-10 (Washington State) and Big East (Louisville) had just one apiece. Altogether, only 17 of 120 FBS schools turned in an average APR score below 930 between 2006 and 2010, and fully half of that group had a score above 925.
Scores have trended upward the last few years, in general, as athletic and compliance departments have responded to the realities of the requirements, and the sanctions that accompany them. But you don't have to look at the scores long to figure out that they're a much greater threat to smaller programs that can't afford the bureaucratic and academic resources than they are to the behemoths — the only "Big Six" programs hit with APR-mandated scholarship losses in football over the last four-year cycle are Kansas (2006-07), Colorado (2008-09), Ole Miss (2008-09) and Maryland (2009-10).
In the non-major leagues, that list includes Akron, Bowling Green, Buffalo, Central Michigan, Florida Atlantic, Florida International, Hawaii, Idaho, Kent State, Louisiana-Lafayette, Louisiana-Monroe, New Mexico State, North Texas, San Diego State, San Jose State, Temple, Toledo, UAB, UNLV and UTEP, most of them incurring penalties on more than one occasion. These are the schools that are more likely to be cut off from the postseason by academics — not because they're recruiting dumber players, but because they don't have the support staff to constantly look over players' shoulders and keep them on track at every turn.
So you might dub the new requirement "He who pays, plays." But then, there's nothing really new about that at all.