According to NCAA data released three weeks ago, Yale University achieved the country’s highest academic progress rate during the 2003-04 academic year. It’s a nice achievement, but somewhere Dana Carvey’s Church Lady smugly wonders, “Well, isn’t that special?”

In an effort to hold universities more accountable for the academic achievements of their student-athletes, the NCAA under the leadership of Myles Brand has developed the APR, a statistic that gauges whether athletes at Division I schools first remain at the school in which they initially enrolled and subsequently whether they stay academically eligible and ultimately graduate. Programs that don’t meet the minimum APR level — 925 on a 1,000-point scale — will eventually be sanctioned with the loss of scholarships and potentially face more damaging consequences such as loss of post-season eligibility and (collective gasp) banishment from the NCAA.

But what does it mean for Yale to be recognized as a model in the field of athletic academia if none of the penalties for poor performance apply? Obviously, the school can’t lose scholarships it can’t offer in the first place. Princeton and the University of Pennsylvania, the lovable second- and third-place finishers in the APR rankings, are in the same boat. Since the Ivy League doesn’t play Division I-A football, bowl eligibility is irrelevant (and this issue is compounded by the Ivy League ban on post-season play in I-AA), and the odds of the NCAA booting the Ivy League — its bastion of all that is quaint and holy in student-athletics — from its ranks on account of poor APR scores are about as good as me attending another Wellesley College ball. Thanks a lot, girl doused in gold glitter that I may or may not have boat-raced into the hospital.

The question of whether the APR will meet its avowed purpose is a question for an entirely different column, but the theory that coaches will stop recruiting players who might have a huge impact on their program but are primed to leave school early is a fallacy. John Calipari re-energized the Memphis program by renting Dajuan Wagner for a year and winning the NIT, while Jim Boeheim ended his long-standing title drought by taking a flier on Carmelo Anthony.

Let’s stay local, though. For Yale to be held up as the gold standard when it is not subject to any of the prospective punitive penalties seems a bit empty. Shouldn’t there be a carrot to go along with the various sticks, even if those sticks can’t be wielded against this school? Apparently not.

“My take is that this is what Yale is all about. It’s a basic principle of what it is Yale athletically is attempting to do,” athletic director Tom Beckett told me. “The whole theme is to put the notion of ‘student’ back into the formula of ‘student-athlete.’ We don’t offer scholarships — does this mean we shouldn’t participate in the ranking? To be part of something that makes schools pay closer attention and emphasize progress toward a degree is a good thing regardless of whether there is a tangible benefit at the end of the day.”

James Jones, coach of the men’s basketball team — one of the 27 Yale teams out of its 29 entries to achieve a perfect APR score — also said that participating and faring well can be an end in and of itself.

“Any time the NCAA is going to make a point of having schools pay more attention to graduating their players, it benefits everyone. It benefits humanity,” Jones said. “Now you’re not just a basketball factory — you’re doing what you’re supposed to do.”

Jones’ comments are especially topical since it is this very time of year that usually draws attention to the deficiencies within the sport he coaches. Teams reaching the Sweet 16 of the NCAA Tournament — which tips off tonight — are annually subjected to intense scrutiny. Only four of the teams who reached that round in last year’s tournament graduated more than half of their players within a six-year span. In 2003, that number was only slightly better; six of the 16 cracked the 50-percent barrier that year.

Let’s be honest — the Ivy League was miserably represented in this year’s field. Awarded a generous 13 seed, Penn got routed by a Boston College team that fell in the subsequent round to a 12 seed. Vermont beat Syracuse as a 13, and Bucknell — a team that lost to Penn by 13 in December — unceremoniously ended pre-season No. 1 Kansas’ tournament run as a 14.

Incidentally, Bucknell is a member of the Patriot League, a body that until recently accompanied the Ivy League in its withholding of athletic scholarships. Today, Lafayette is the only program in the league that does not offer such scholarships. Bucknell began offering athletic aid in 2003, and it managed to win an NCAA Tournament game just two years later. For what it’s worth, studies have shown no drop-off in academic performance among Patriot League schools such as Lehigh, Holy Cross and Colgate in the incipience of their athletic scholarship programs.

Although Beckett claims that athletes at non-scholarship Ivy League programs thrive under the cultivated culture of “David going after Goliath,” one wonders as the league RPI continues to fall and the years continue to pass since Princeton’s upset of UCLA in 1994 and Penn’s miraculous Final Four run in 1979 if the league would be better off leaving Division I in order to play against programs against which it has a chance to be competitive. According to some frustrated fans of the league, something needs to be done to remedy this slide, whether it be the implementation of a post-season conference tournament or the more dramatic departure from Division I.

Beckett will have no such talk, however. When I mentioned the possibility of moving down in basketball, he audibly cringed and interjected, “I don’t even want to talk about that — that’s one of the worst mistakes we could ever make.” He cited the 1982 decision to move Ivy League football to Division I-AA as a critical error and mentioned that over the past four seasons, the Yale men’s basketball has defeated programs from the ACC (Clemson), Big Ten (Penn State) and Big East (Rutgers). Going into the game, Beckett thought, Penn had a legitimate chance to knock off BC.

“Our kids really look forward to those kinds of challenges. They love playing nationally ranked teams, and they were thrilled with the opportunity to play Wake Forest or UConn in the NIT last year,” Beckett said. “This is a rallying cry for our schools. In my view, it’s the purest form of amateur athletics in the history of college athletics. It’s a source of pride. Do we go up against insurmountable odds at times? Certainly. Does that mean we should stop trying? Heavens no.”

In a column I wrote last January, I floated the idea of guaranteeing home contests for teams that fare well on the APR and derive nothing from this feat against teams that fail to meet the standard. If Cincinnati or Oklahoma doesn’t graduate anyone from their program according to this ranking, make them travel to Yale with no strings attached, no home/home/home-and-home ridiculous caveat usually attached by big programs when they agree to play teams from mid-major conferences. This pipe dream requires a real stretch of the imagination, and it might not be entirely realistic. But something should be done to reward a program that is being held on display as the example toward which athletic departments nationwide should aspire.

Jones, while understandably dubious about the actual meaning of the APR (players that transfer in from junior colleges and proceed to graduate are not counted while those who transfer out are counted as not having graduated), was at least mildly receptive to my proposal, and understandably so: His team’s 6-1 home mark in the Ivy League was offset by its 1-6 road record and has proven to be an exceedingly formidable team within the confines of the Lee Amphitheater.

And I’ll say this for Tom Beckett — he is one bright man. When he wasn’t stroking my ego with comments about my “very keen mind” or my “wonderful understanding of athletics,” he was agreeing that it would be nice in theory if there were in fact a carrot to go along with the stick that this initiative can wave.

If a heightened focus on academic performance does indeed develop within big-money college programs, this might, over the long haul, even the intercollegiate playing field. But if universities instead decide to inflate their statistics by employing the Jim Harrick Jrs. of the world in positions of academic leadership, something more immediate should be done as a boon to all the programs at schools that annihilate the 925 barrier but have no scholarships or bowl eligibility to maintain. It’s fair to argue that the education one receives at one of these institutions is reward enough, but with no athlete getting a free ride for his exploits on the fields and the APR still scoring his academic efforts, non-scholarship schools deserve some legitimate reward for faring well.