Collaborating to Improve Academic Progress: A Success Story

 Perspectives - Masthead 

By Rich Heath, Detra Hooper and Bonnie Garrett 

When the Department of Education issued new requirements for Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) for Title IV funds in 2011, it meant significant adjustments to an already challenging process at many schools. SAP has long been a tool for keeping students on-track toward their academic goals while ensuring the responsible use of Title IV funds. However, because SAP bridges both the academic and financial sides of student services, it requires a well-coordinated, concerted effort by multiple areas of the institution. The key to implementing SAP is effective interdepartmental collaboration to help students succeed.

Connecting Academics and Financial Aid

In 2010, Anne Arundel Community College initiated a mutually beneficial partnership between the financial aid office and its counseling, advising, and retention services office (CARS). CARS offers academic advising, counseling, disability support, transfer and career services, as well as a series of academic, career exploration, job search, wellness, and transfer workshops. While all of the CARS services are available to the whole student population, each student must initiate access voluntarily. 

The CARS/financial aid partnership provided an opportunity to move from simply exposing students to the available resources to tying the use of those resources to the financial aid appeal process. The two departments focused on helping our students to develop achievable goals, providing our students with appropriate tools and interventions to reach those goals, and holding our students accountable if they don’t succeed in accomplishing their goals. By stressing the importance of compliance with ongoing initiatives and incorporating an academic success plan into the financial aid appeal process, we have made students more likely to take advantage of the many services available to assist them.  

For example, five weeks into the 15-week term, students who show one or more interim grades below a certain level are instructed to meet with an academic advisor. These students also receive automated phone reminders about the numerous available AACC resources, activities, and workshops available to help improve their academic performance and future planning. Financial aid recipients receive a follow-up e-mail reiterating the importance of meeting with the advisor and resolving academic problems. This email reminds the student that failure to meet with an advisor can negatively impact any future appeal decisions. Outreach from both the financial aid office and CARS increases the possibility that students will respond while there is still time to resolve their academic problems. 

New Regulations Require Revisions

When the Department of Education issued new SAP regulations in July 2011, AACC staff anticipated that its full implementation by the July 1, 2012, deadline would be a challenge. Of particular concern was the implementation of the more frequent monitoring, which affords more flexible options for schools’ SAP policies.  (Details about the new SAP requirements may be found on the NASFAA website in NASFAA Monograph #25: Satisfactory Academic Progress.) However, after assessing AACC’s existing processes and interdepartmental relationships, it became apparent that we did not have to reinvent the wheel; we simply needed to enhance our existing methods. 

We started by evaluating students’ academic performance more frequently. Assessing SAP after each payment period allows AACC to monitor student success more closely and to more quickly notify students of available interventions and potential consequences of inaction.  

We then developed a new approach to working with students who fail to meet SAP based on these more frequent assessments. When students fail to achieve at least a 67 percent completion rate and a minimum GPA of 2.0, their financial aid eligibility is suspended. Students may appeal each financial aid suspension. 

The first time a financial aid recipient does not meet SAP, he or she must complete a financial aid Academic Success Plan with an academic advisor. The advisor identifies required courses needed to complete the program, sets an anticipated completion or graduation date, reviews the student’s academic history, and discusses instructional formats that may be too challenging. The advisor recommends various student success activities specific to the student’s needs, and may even recommend limiting the number of credits to be attempted in the upcoming term. The student then submits an appeal letter, documentation of extenuating circumstances, and the Academic Success Plan to the financial aid office for consideration in determining future eligibility for financial aid.

Students who continue to fail to meet SAP requirements after submitting their first financial aid Academic Success Plan must submit an additional appeal and supporting documentation. If the student’s program of study has changed, he or she must meet with an academic advisor to complete an updated Academic Success Plan. Future aid eligibility depends on the student’s compliance with these requirements as well as recommendations from the initial academic success plan.

The financial aid office reviews the circumstances outlined in the appeal, any supporting documentation, and comments received from the academic advisor. The financial aid office may impose registration restrictions on a student who demonstrates the inability to balance school requirements with life events. For example, we’ve noted that an increasing number of students are struggling academically due to working multiple jobs, being laid-off, maintaining a household, or caring for elderly parents. The registration restriction permits academic advisors to work with these students to create a realistic course schedule with the greatest possibility of achieving academic success. 

Encouraging Results

Just a single academic year has cycled since the Department announced the new SAP guidance, but the data we’ve collected are highly encouraging. Of the 4,278 students who received notification from the financial aid office to meet with an academic advisor and create an Academic Success Plan, 83 percent (3,566) complied. Additionally, we have realized a 16 percent increase in the number of students meeting the minimum SAP requirements and a 1 percent increase in the number of students successfully maintaining SAP after the initial appeal. We expect this number to increase in future years, as students have time to bring their grades up. 

Collaboration among Institutions

Beyond interdepartmental cooperation, focus on the problem of “Pell runners” over the last two years has increased collaboration among area community colleges on SAP issues. Pell runners are students who, after failing at a previous school, omit their previous academic history on the enrollment application at a new institution in order to receive additional Federal Pell Grants. When this issue came to light, AACC reviewed the NDSL records of our students with SAP issues. We found many who had reported that they never previously attended an institution actually had a history of previous student loan debt. Others had underreported the number of schools previously attended. Once requested, their academic transcripts revealed poor academic performance and frequent failures to achieve a 67% completion rate. 

We decided on a case-by-case basis whether to grant these students some level of probation or deny the appeal with the opportunity to complete at least six credits at their own expense before re-appealing.  We now have in place a systematic, manual process to request and review academic transcripts whenever we note potential problems. Our goal is to begin monitoring and assisting these students when they first enroll in AACC by requiring an Academic Success Plan and starting them at a level of probation. 

Awareness of Pell runners led Maryland community colleges to collaborate on our SAP policies and to coordinate these policies with nearby Northern Virginia community colleges as well. While not all of our SAP policies are identical, this collaboration provides a level of consistency that helps prevent students who fail at one area school from moving to another institution without being held accountable.  The addition of the Lifetime Eligibility Used (LEU) requirement in December 2011 and the availability of LEU data via NSLDS have strengthened this approach. Listing LEU information on the ISIR in 2013-14 will help schools to automate the process.

We believe students’ success will increase as they become more aware of the impact their successes and failures have on their financial aid eligibility and recognize that they cannot simply transfer and start over. The aggregate Pell and loan abuses we have seen should diminish in the coming years, and should lead to an increase in certificate, associate, and bachelor degree completion.

Joining Forces Benefits Students

Our experience suggests that a collaborative, interdepartmental approach can be a highly effective way to improve students’ academic success. Working collaboratively with nearby institutions also strengthens our ability to prevent abuse of the Title IV programs while helping to identify those students who need more proactive intervention to reach their academic goals. 

By Rich Heath, director of financial aid, Detra Hooper, assistant financial aid director and SAP coordinator, and Bonnie Garrett, director of counseling, advising, and retention services for Anne Arundel Community College. 

 

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