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