Academic requirements for financial aid are locking out students who need the most support

Academic requirements for accessing state and federal financial aid (including loans, grants, and work study) are preventing hundreds of thousands of college students from completing their degrees, experts tell The Hechinger Report. Students maintain their eligibility for financial aid under a federal process called Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), which determines students’ academic standing and whether or not they are on track to complete their degree on time.

Under current SAP rules, students must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA, finish at least 67% of attempted credit hours, and complete a degree program within 150% of the expected time frame (such as completing a four-year program in six years).

‘Doubling down’ on barriers to education

Federal regulations require schools to have SAP policies, but those policies become stricter or more lenient depending on the college. Some institutions may require students receiving financial aid to complete more than 67% of their attempted credit hours or mandate a 2.0 GPA every term, while others consider the cumulative GPA. Colleges may also place students on “warning” status, so that they have a chance to improve their academic standing. Others may not, disqualifying students from receiving financial aid—eligibility that can be regained only through a complex appeal process, according to the U.S. Department of Education and a January 2023 report from John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY).

Although institutions must implement SAP policies, they are not required to have an appeals process. Students who lose financial aid access due to SAP failure are “SAP-ed out.”

Schools that allow students to appeal their SAP disqualification limit the reasons to death of a family member, illness or injury of the student, or other special circumstances. At some colleges, lack of transportation or child care access, difficulties balancing academic work and employment, and trouble acquiring course materials are not grounds for appeal.

Advocates, from financial aid administrators and nonprofit organizations to legislators, say the SAP requirements can punish students who are struggling to cover college costs while balancing work and familial responsibilities. They also disproportionately affect low-income students and students of color, according to a 2021 JBAY report. Students with a history of foster care had the highest rate of SAP failure at 34%. Among students who were SAP-ed out, approximately 77% were low-income students who lost their Pell Grants, says an April 2023 Higher Learning Advocates report.

“What SAP policies end up doing is targeting students who are coming in with the biggest existing barriers, and then doubling down,” Debbie Raucher, director of education for JBAY, tells The Hechinger Report.

Because SAP criteria may be even stricter than a college’s general requirements for any student to be considered in good standing, lower-income students dependent on financial aid “have to meet a higher standard simply because they have financial need,” Christina Tangalakis, associate dean of financial aid at Glendale Community College in Southern California, tells The Hechinger Report. “Ultimately, it’s just a very powerful message that says you don’t belong here.”

Less restrictive policies

At the state and federal levels, policymakers and education leaders are working on ways to help SAP-ed out students re-enroll and complete their degree. In 2016, Indiana launched the You Can. Go Back. Campaign to reach out directly to stopped-out students and enable adults SAP-ed out of financial aid to continue their education.

In October 2023, California passed a financial aid reform bill to help adults complete their degree programs by restricting California colleges from implementing SAP requirements that are more severe than those required by federal law. The new law also permits students who lost financial aid due to SAP requirements to appeal to regain financial aid once they re-enroll. Experts tell The Hechinger Report that colleges that implemented liberal interpretations of the SAP rules and generous appeal processes have seen the share of students with SAP disqualification decline and have seen increases in the number of SAP-ed out students who completed their degrees and certificates.

At the federal level, the U.S. Department of Education received a letter from 39 nonprofit organizations asking the department to issue guidance that provides more transparency about SAP rules. In addition, Sen. Cory Booker (D-N.J.) is expected to introduce legislation similar to his 2020 bill focused on restoring access to financial aid for students who previously failed to meet SAP standards.

Creating more student-friendly SAP policies, simplifying communication with students about financial aid and SAP procedures, and creating earlier warning systems that help students navigate the SAP process can lead to more equitable outcomes, JBAY researchers say.

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