Financial Aid Access Imperiled by SAP, New Report Highlights Needed Reform to Promote Student Success

By Hugh T. Ferguson, NASFAA Staff Reporter  

A new study focusing on California’s community colleges found that 1 in 4 students lose access to financial aid after just one year of college due to Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP), making it more difficult for first-generation and low-income students to complete their programs.

The report, which aims to bolster the availability of quantitative analysis of SAP, homes in on the California community college system and details that while students are able to access financial aid at the outset of their enrollment, a sizable number of students lose access to financial aid after just one year of college due to SAP academic standards with those students unlikely to return.

In a recent panel discussion John Burton Advocates for Youth’s (JBAY) Debbie Raucher, director of education, offered key insights into how the development and implementation of SAP has made accessing financial aid more difficult for students. 

The report’s focus on the California Community College system, which is the largest public postsecondary system in the country, serving over 2.1 million students annually across 116 campuses, utilized data collected in the fall of 2017.

Among the key findings, rates of SAP failure for Black students who received a Pell Grant in their first year were more than twice that of white students: 34% vs. 15%. The highest rates of SAP failure were found among students with experience in the foster care system, who had a SAP failure rate of 34%  after their first year. Among those who failed to make SAP and remain enrolled, the vast majority (77%) had lost their Pell Grant award, further decreasing their likelihood of success.

Much of SAP has not been updated since the 1980s but the pandemic has yielded some newly implemented flexibility for vulnerable students.

Federal law defines the basis for an appeal as the death of a relative, an injury or illness of the student, or “special circumstances as determined by the institution.” 

The impact of the pandemic has brought some short-term changes to the appeals process by expanding what qualifies as an approved appeal. The Department of Education (ED), following the onset of COVID-19, updated the definition for the basis of a SAP appeal to include “circumstances related to an outbreak of COVID-19, including, but not limited to, the illness of a student or family member, compliance with a quarantine period, or the general disruption resulting from such an outbreak,” and noted that the new circumstances should be considered “even if not specifically articulated in the institution’s SAP policy.”

For instance a student who’s GPA was impacted due to a lack of basic needs due to the pandemic could now successfully appeal SAP, whereas prior to the pandemic appealing on this basis could be met with obstacles.

However when the pandemic ends it is unclear whether those flexibilities will remain in place even though students will continue to experience basic needs insecurity and the transition of online coursework can make class completion difficult. 

“In terms of COVID-19… even once we get to the point where the health emergency is over, we know that the repercussions of the pandemic are going to ripple through educational systems for years,” Raucher said. “In thinking about how the pandemic is going to be impacting students, we're really going to be urging the Department of Education to not abandon some of these temporary changes but, in fact, to make them permanent because the impact of the pandemic is not going to go away as soon as the health emergency is over.”

During Thursday’s conversation a pair of higher education students who struggled with the SAP appeal process detailed how basic needs insecurity, like the foster care system and bouts of homelessness, further burdened their higher education goals and made the completion process more drawn out. For these students when they had access to their basic needs they were able to meet their program requirements. 

These findings, according to Raucher, present a troubling narrative of the continued failure of financial aid systems to adequately address and remedy the historic and ongoing inequities faced by our most vulnerable students.

Gina Browne, dean of educational services and support at California Community Colleges, urged those involved in the financial aid process to utilize all the available resources and touted NASFAA’s AskRegs as a handy resource.

The California-based report includes a number of recommendations which specifically includes advocating for an extension of the SAP flexibilities granted to institutions as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic as well as identifying funding that institutions can use to create intrusive coaching programs targeting students at risk of losing financial aid.

Further, the paper urges institutions to proactively communicate with students about their SAP status.

“To ensure that students maximize aid receipt, administrators, those of us who administer financial aid must balance making processes student focused while serving as stewards of federal state and institutional policies,” Browne said. “For everyone in systems of higher education we have to really think about transforming our culture. What we need is a paradigm shift.”


Publication Date: 7/23/2021

Kim M | 7/23/2021 7:0:50 PM

Since low income students and their parents pay taxes, too (federal, state and local), they are just as committed and able to achieve an educational goal. The JBAY discussioln was very enlightening because it discussed a number of alternatives to stringent SAP policies that may be affecting students who may benefit from flexible procedures that help them navigate a complex system regardless of their income bracket or financial need. The discussion highlighted different strategies colleges could consider processes in their SAP policy that is both less punitive and still in compliance. For example, the need for SAP appeal deadllines; is this required by law or is it an impediment?. Also the length of time for 1st and 2nd level appeal decisions; does it take 6-8 weeks or more? In otherwords, what impact would these procedures have on a student? It wouldn't to review the report and to check an institution's SAP procedures to gage their impact on the students after the first year.

Kimberly L | 7/23/2021 1:49:48 PM

P.S., I completely agree with Henry.

Kimberly L | 7/23/2021 1:47:57 PM

I firmly believe that mandatory orientation is in order. Too often, we see students who do not learn of wrap around services until they are in an unsatisfactory SAP status. The beauty of a community college is open access. The tender point of community college, is open access. We have students enroll in classes they are not prepared to handle. We also have students who enroll in a heavy course load, that becomes a problem with balancing their personal life. If I were "King of the World", I would mandate orientation.

Ryan C | 7/23/2021 1:5:47 PM

The best way to improve this issue is to remove or drastically modify and simplify R2T4.

Of those kids who don't return, I wonder how many of them have outstanding bills because they didn't understand this really cool concept of getting your paycheck before you do the work. (ie, aid earned) - The concept is backwards. I'm all for suspending aid and I understand that we don't want to encourage fraud, but reversing aid already disbursed because the student "withdrew" from my years in finaid causes more hardship than prevents fraud. This is low hanging fruit that could have immediate impact in my imperfect view.

Henry Q | 7/23/2021 12:21:38 PM

Requiring students to maintain SAP toward graduation is not an onerous policy; rather, it is perfectly reasonable to expect students to progress toward their chosen goal (graduation) at an acceptable rate. After all, students are able to receive aid for 150% of the time required to earn their chosen credential while only having to maintain "average" grades. This is a tremendous benefit.

David S. questions the fairness of a situation where "rich kids goof off" on Daddy's money, yet continue their attendance, while some students have to work two jobs to make ends meet and lose their aid because they can't meet the standard of passing two-thirds of their classes with a "C" average. To me, this is a disingenous argument for watering down (or even getting rid of) SAP requirements. Having a SAP policy is fair, but not every student comes into higher education on equal footing. It has ever been thus.

In my experience, any student (rich or not) who "goofs off" will lose the privilege to attend due to the institutional SAP policy; they aren't allowed to continue just because Daddy can pay. In the end, everyone has to do the work required to earn a degree, or the degree has no meaning. In fact, a lot of degrees offered around the nation have very little meaning to an employer. That is one reason we see more and more stories questioning the value of a college degree, with thousands of students struggling with mountains of debt.

Joel T | 7/23/2021 11:16:37 AM

It goes without saying that homelessness, food insecurity, unaccompanied minors, etc. are all horrible situations that we, as a society, should work to improve. No child should have to go through what some of our students have seen and faced. To Janet's point, we should be doing all that we can to put wrap around resources on these students and work to mitigate some of the challenges we know they are facing. I am very happy that our college does this. (i.e. Food pantry, clothing closet for those needing clothes for an interview, tutoring services, information for local, state, and federal resources, mental health response team, etc.)

That being said, I believe the national statistics are somewhere around 3% of students stating that they're homeless or an unaccompanied youth as an example. When you're developing a policy at a global level should we not be working to address 97% of the concerns and then using our professional judgment to correct or account for the remaining 3%? Most appeal processes are a singular form. Surely we are not considering that too much of a burden these days.

And to David S., our academic standards are just as strict as our SAP standards. If a student performs poorly for two semesters straight they are not allowed to enroll for a third. When they re-enter the college again they must complete a readmission plan where we work to identify the issues they had previously and make a plan to address or correct those issues. I have to believe that most (if not all) colleges have academic standards, so the "rich kid" argument detracts from any of the merits you were trying to convey.

Aesha E | 7/23/2021 10:37:39 AM

I think it's also important to consider that this policy was created almost 40 years ago. Student populations have changed DRAMATICALLY in four decades. So the problem it was once implemented to address (students who lack commitment or ability) is now catching students not because they lack commitment, but because they lack childcare [or insert other item here].

Janet I | 7/23/2021 9:31:44 AM

I see David S. point but this is a complicated policy. Yes, is it to protect the taxpayers but schools should see it as a way to ensure success for all of their at risk students. Okay, the Feds are making us look at each Title IV recioeints progress, should we not be doing that anyways? Should we not have intervention programs in place to track the student the very first term they attend if they are not meeting minimum standards?
Just because the Regs say we can give them a "pass" one pay period and put on warning should that be all we do? What about mentoring, free support services, a "hands on -up in your business" approach to our at risk students. Even if Daddy's money is paying should we not do all we can to help that student succeed?
Nothing lasts forever including Title IV aid, we need to do all we can to keep the student on track and reach their educational goals which in return brings success to our institutions. Janet I.

David S | 7/23/2021 8:21:12 AM

The concept of SAP is so that taxpayers aren't supporting students who lack commitment or ability. The question is, which is worse, the problem it's intended to prevent, or the problems it creates? How many students with potential to succeed have dropped out because one bad semester led to them losing aid eligibility? How fair is it that rich kids can goof off all they want because Daddy will pay the bill, but a low income single parent working 2 jobs while going to school to try to improve their lot in life can't get the aid they otherwise qualify for?

SAP throws the baby out with the bathwater. We must do better, or higher ed is not the upwardly mobile vehicle we like to think it is.

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