ED Proposes to Tighten Satisfactory Academic Progress Regulations

On June 18, 2010, the Federal Register published the Department of Education's long-anticipated Notice of Proposed Rulemaking (NPRM) on program integrity. This NPRM is the partial result of negotiated rulemaking sessions held from November 2009 to January 2010. The Department brought 14 issues to the negotiating table for regulatory action, but tentative agreements were reached on only 9 of the issues. Since consensus agreement was not reached on the entire package of 14 issues, the Department was released from any obligation to adhere strictly to the tentative agreements that had developed over the course of the negotiations. 

The next step in the regulatory process is public comment on the NPRM, due no later than August 2, 2010, as instructed in the NPRM. Your input by August 2 is vital on these critical Title IV regulatory proposals. All of the issues addressed in the NPRM are significant. NASFAA will publish a series of articles on the issues to help you analyze the proposals. Please copy NASFAA (policy@nasfaa.org) on any comments you submit.

ED Proposes to Tighten Satisfactory Academic Progress Regulations 

The June 18, 2010, program integrity NPRM proposes to move satisfactory academic progress (SAP) regulations from administrative capability to student eligibility, consolidating the various pieces currently found in different areas of regulation. It also incorporates into the regulations certain SAP policy requirements that are currently only found in the FSA Handbook. Although the maximum interval between assessments would continue to be one year, the draft rules would impose limits on how long a student could continue to receive Title IV aid in order to make up deficiencies in meeting SAP standards. The proposal distinguishes between warning periods (when the school's policy could allow a student to continue to receive Title IV aid automatically), and probationary periods (when the student could continue to receive Title IV aid only as the result of a successful appeal). Only schools that assess SAP at the end of every payment period could apply warning periods. Schools that assess SAP less frequently would have to require a successful appeal to let any student continue to receive Title IV aid despite failing SAP standards.

The new language continues to give institutions flexibility in establishing its policies. The Department provided this flexibility to ease concerns about undergraduate students who may need to go beyond the 150 percent maximum time frame and the treatment of second appeals.

The Department's main goals are to limit how long students who are not making satisfactory academic progress can continue to receive Title IV aid, and to implement a more structured, comprehensive, and consistent approach to the development and implementation of institutional SAP policies. The proposed rule regarding SAP reflects tentative agreements reached during the negotiated rulemaking that led up to this NPRM.

For your convenience, we have extracted just the SAP segments of the NPRM so that you can share this topic with others on your campus who might contribute to your response, such as the registrar and/or academic personnel.

Background  

Currently, satisfactory academic progress requirements are contained in three sections of the regulations: 668.16(e), 668.32, and 668.34. Section 668.16(e) specifies that in order to be considered administratively capable, the school must establish, publish, and apply reasonable standards for measuring whether a student is maintaining satisfactory progress. Reasonable standards are the same as or stricter than the school's standards for students enrolled in the same program who are not Title IV recipients, and contain both qualitative (grade-based) and quantitative (time-related) standards.

The policy must be applied consistently and the school must check both qualitative and quantitative components at the end of each increment, which may not be longer than one half of the length of the program or one academic year, whichever is less.

The policy must provide specific procedures under which a student may appeal a determination that the student is not making satisfactory progress and specific procedures for a student to re-establish that he or she is making satisfactory progress.

Current section 668.32(f) specifies that to be eligible to receive Title IV aid, a student must maintain satisfactory progress under the school's published standards.

Section 668.34 specifies that a student who is enrolled in a program that is longer than two academic years must, at the end of the second year, have a grade point average of at least a "C" or equivalent, or have academic standing consistent with the school's graduation requirements. Also, a school may determine that a student is making satisfactory progress even if the student does not meet these requirements, based upon the death of a relative of the student, an injury or illness of the student, or other special circumstances.

Sub-regulatory guidance gives significant latitude to schools in devising appeal policies. Therefore, there is great variation from school to school regarding the use and definition of various statuses, such as warning and probation. All schools are currently permitted to grant automatic probationary periods, and there are no restrictions on their length.

Proposed Rules  

Significant changes contained in the proposed rules are described below.

  • Restructure the satisfactory academic progress requirements.

    The proposed regulations would restructure the satisfactory academic progress requirements. Section 668.16(e) would be revised to include only the requirement that an institution establish, publish, and apply SAP standards that meet the requirements of 668.34. The remainder of the relevant parts of 668.16(e) would be moved to 668.34. Hence, there would be only one section that describes all of the required elements of a SAP policy, as well as how a school would implement its policy.

    The elements of a school's SAP standards would still include a qualitative component (typically grade point average), a quantitative component referred to as the student's pace, and a maximum timeframe (which would continue to be limited to no more than 150% of the published length of the program for undergraduate study).

    Note that some schools currently evaluate one component of their SAP policy annually, but evaluate the other component more frequently. For example, some schools evaluate qualitative progress (generally grade point average) every term, but quantitative progress (e.g., credits earned) only annually. The Department has responded negatively to inquiries about this practice; the proposed rule specifies that each evaluation must examine both components.

  • Make explicit the requirement that schools specify the pace at which a student must progress through the educational program and provide for measurement of a student's pace at each evaluation.

    The proposed rule clarifies that a SAP policy must be constructed based on the maximum timeframe. Thus, the periodic evaluations must reflect the progress necessary to complete the program within that timeframe. Although SAP policies should currently be constructed in this way, the Department has seen instances where students can continue to receive aid under a school's policy even though it is no longer mathematically possible to achieve graduation requirements by the end of the maximum timeframe. This aspect of the proposed rule seeks to preclude that scenario by clarifying the Department's expectations.

    The proposed rule would specify how to measure pace, by dividing the cumulative number of hours the student has successfully completed by the cumulative number of hours the student has attempted. (Remedial coursework is excluded from this determination, but transfer credits accepted by the institution towards the student's program are included.)

  • Codify previous sub-regulatory guidance regarding transfer credits.

    Schools would be required to count transfer credit hours that are accepted toward a student's educational program as both attempted and completed hours.

    This requirement is currently included in the FSA Handbook. It is not in current regulations.

  • Specifies appeal requirements, if the school chooses to permit appeals

    The circumstances under which a student would be permitted to submit an appeal (death of a relative, injury or illness of the student, or other special circumstances) would remain unchanged under ED's proposal.

    However, a student would be required to submit, as part of the appeal, information regarding why the student failed to make SAP, and what has changed in the student's situation that would allow the student demonstrate satisfactory academic progress at the next evaluation.

  • Specifies appeal approval conditions.

    An appeal may be approved only if the school:

    1. Has determined that the student be able to meet SAP standards after the subsequent payment period; or
    2. Develops an academic plan with the student that, if followed, will ensure that the student is able to meet SAP standards by a specific point in time.

    Failure to meet both the qualitative and quantitative (pace) standards may be appealed under the proposed rules, as is currently allowed. The preamble to the proposed rule clarifies that a student would also still be able to appeal the failure to meet the maximum timeframe.

  • Provides standardized definitions of financial aid warning and financial aid probation.

    Financial aid warning is a status assigned to a student who fails to make satisfactory academic progress at a school that evaluates academic progress at the end of each payment period.

    Financial aid probation is a status assigned to a student who fails to make satisfactory academic progress and who has appealed and has had eligibility for aid reinstated.

  • Specifies under what circumstances financial aid warning and financial aid probation statuses may be used.

    Only schools that evaluate academic progress at the end of each payment period may have a financial aid warning status. A student on financial aid warning may continue to receive Title IV aid for one payment period despite a determination that the student is not meeting SAP standards. Financial aid warning status may be assigned without an appeal or other action by the student; thus, warning status can be granted "automatically."

    Financial aid probation status can be used by any school. Probation status can be granted only after the student has appealed and has had eligibility for aid reinstated based on the appeal. A school could require that a student on probation fulfill specific terms and conditions, such as taking a reduced course loan or enrolling in specific courses. A student on financial aid probation may receive Title IV funds for one payment period. At that point, the student must meet the school's SAP standards or the requirements of the established academic plan to maintain Title IV eligibility.

    Schools that evaluate SAP at the end of each payment period  

    For the payment period following the payment period in which the student did not meet SAP standards, the school may choose to:

    1. Place the student on financial aid warning and disburse Title IV funds to the student; or
    2. Place the student on financial aid probation, following the prescribed appeal procedures, and disburse Title IV funds to the student (assuming the school allows appeals).

    For the payment period following a payment period during which a student was on financial aid warning and still did not meet SAP standards, the school may choose to place the student on financial aid probation, following the prescribed appeal procedures, and disburse Title IV funds to the student.

    For the payment period following a payment period during which a student was on financial aid probation, the school can disburse Title IV funds only if the student is meeting SAP standards or the school determines that the student met the requirements specified by the institution in the student's academic plan developed during the appeal process.

    Schools that evaluate SAP annually or less frequently than at the end of each payment period  

    For the payment period following the payment period in which the student did not meet SAP standards, the school may choose to place the student on financial aid probation, following the prescribed appeal procedures, and disburse Title IV funds to the student.

    For the payment period following a payment period during which a student was on financial aid probation, the school can disburse Title IV funds only if the student is meeting SAP standards or the school determines that the student met the requirements specified by the institution in the student's academic plan developed during the appeal process.

    Note that the preamble to the proposed rule includes a discussion of what constitutes an "annual" evaluation based on exchanges of information during negotiated rulemaking. Having considered a number of interpretations, the Department concluded that the current common practice of evaluating at a fixed point each year, for example, at the end of the spring term, is acceptable as long as all coursework undertaken since the last evaluation is counted, including summer session work.

    Summer terms  

    Summer would count as any other payment period. A school that offers a summer session but evaluates only at the end of fall and spring would be considered an institution that evaluates less frequently than at the end of each payment period, and could not therefore have an automatic warning period.

    For example, a school that evaluates after each term puts a student on automatic warning after the spring evaluation; the student takes summer courses. He would have to be evaluated at the end of summer and either have made up the SAP deficiency or successfully appeal his failure to make up the deficiency in order to receive aid for the fall.

    Another school finds that a student is no longer making progress at the annual evaluation following spring term. The student successfully appeals, and elects to take summer courses. At the end of the summer payment period, the school must evaluate that student's progress.

  • Expands the elements required in a school's SAP policy

    The following new or expanded items must be included in a school's SAP policy:

    1. Treatment of transfer credits
    2. A description of financial aid warning and probationary statuses and how they are used, if applicable
    3. A description of the appeal process, if applicable, including the basis on which a student may file an appeal, and the information the student must submit with the appeal, including a description of what has changed that will allow the student to make SAP
    4. A notification to students of the results of an evaluation that impacts the student's Title IV eligibility
     

Questions and Concerns  

Consider the following points as you construct your response to the NPRM on this topic, and please share with NASFAA any other points you see. As you read through the proposed rule and its explanation in the NPRM, ask yourself what you and your institution need to know to ensure that this approach will work. Seek input from others on campus whose work might be impacted, such as your institution's academic dean or vice president.

"Same as or stricter than" requirement  

Remember that there is no proposed change to the "same as or stricter than" requirement. Consider how the proposed rules would compare to your institutional policy for non-Title IV recipients. Is there any additional information that you need from ED to ensure compliance with "the same as or stricter than" requirement?

Pace requirement  

Current regulations require an institution to establish, as the quantitative component, a schedule designating "the minimum percentage or amount of work that a student must successfully complete at the end of each increment to complete his or her educational program within the maximum timeframe." The proposed rule requires an institution to establish the minimum "pace" at which a student must progress and defines how pace must be calculated (dividing the hours successfully completed by the hours attempted, cumulatively). How does this compare with your current policy? Is it reasonable, or too restrictive?

C requirement  

Current regulation specifies that for programs longer than two academic years in length, the student must achieve at least a "C" GPA or its equivalent, or standing consistent with graduation requirements "at the end of the second year." The student's enrollment status does not change when the end of the second year occurs. The proposed rule specifies "at the end of the second academic year." What does that mean? Would it be an equivalency if the student were part-time? Would it be measured in both weeks and credits?

Appeal process  

Think of your current SAP appeal process and the changes that would be required under these proposed rules.

Do you currently develop academic plans for your students? Do you feel that the NPRM provides enough information to enable you to do so, if you choose that option? If not, what additional information would you need? How will you monitor students' adherence to the academic plan?

Warning and probation  

Do you agree with ED's contention that by offering additional flexibility to schools that measure SAP at the end of each payment period, schools will be encouraged to evaluate a student's SAP more frequently? Or is the extra work not worth the flexibility?

Note that if you evaluate SAP less frequently than every payment period, you would be required to check SAP more frequently for those students on financial aid probation under these proposed rules. Is that doable? Is it reasonable to limit students in academic difficulty to one payment period of additional aid? Will requiring a student to appeal in all cases (rather than allow automatic extensions of federal aid eligibility) improve intervention and counseling for those students?

If a student who was placed on probation as a result of an appeal and at the end of the next term is still not making progress, can a second appeal be made and granted? For example, a student failed the GPA component of her school's SAP standards and was placed on probation with the expectation that she would overcome the deficiency and once again be in compliance with SAP. The following term, she had achieved the GPA needed to make SAP, but now fails the pace requirement. Should she appeal again? Should she be able to appeal again if she had failed to bring her GPA up as expected? The wording of the proposed rule does not seem to encompass it, yet that failure could have been due to circumstances beyond her control, such as illness.

Again, please copy NASFAA at policy@nasfaa.org on your responses to the NPRM.

 

Publication Date: 7/2/2010

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