A new policy brief out of Higher Learning Advocates argues that satisfactory academic progress (SAP) requirements disproportionately impact low-income students and students of color, leaving many without federal financial aid and without ever completing a degree or credential.
The brief examines how current SAP policies can be confusing for many students, such as those who are new to college and arrive academically underprepared, do not receive proper advising, or face unexpected life challenges.
Institutions can create their own SAP requirements, but at minimum students must maintain at least a 2.0 GPA and pass enough classes to graduate within 150% of the expected timeframe in order to receive federal student aid.
While SAP requirements served a purpose 47 years ago, when it was first established, the brief shows that it now disproportionately impacts Black, Hispanic, and Indigenous American students, who failed to meet SAP more than twice the rate of their white peers. Among those students who failed to meet SAP standards, roughly 77% were students from low-income backgrounds who lost their Pell Grant award, the brief notes.
“Losing access to critical financial aid due to not meeting SAP requirements can prevent students from staying in school, especially the 6.7 million Pell Grant recipients who rely on this aid to access higher learning and returning adults seeking a competitive advantage in the labor market,” the report states.
That leads to many students being “SAP-ed out” of higher education, which according to the brief is when a school denies a student’s SAP appeal. The brief notes that out of the fear of being audited by the federal government and losing an institution’s ability to distribute federal financial aid, some financial aid administrators are “conservative” in applying the “special circumstances” component of the SAP rule.
Being “SAP-ed out” is particularly tough for returning adult learners, who may have stopped out or dropped out and want to return to school. As the brief notes, there are currently over 39 million adults in the U.S. who have some postsecondary academic credit, but no credential and are not currently enrolled in higher education.
“These students face challenges that may affect their academic performance, such as trouble securing stable and affordable child care, job loss, financial duress, or other circumstances outside their control,” the brief states. “Once these students have a chance to get back on their feet and are ready to finish their education, they should be able to return to school without having to jump through unnecessary hoops.”
The brief highlights actions that have been taken at the state level to get returning adult learners back into higher education, including Indiana, which has an Adult Student Grant and a Workforce ReadyGrant. The grant programs allow returning Indiana students not enrolled during the previous two years to become automatically eligible for federal student aid even if they “SAP-ed out.”
At Cuyahoga Community College in Cleveland, Ohio, the college implemented several steps to help students with SAP. Students are notified of their SAP status every term instead of annually and operate a fully-online SAP appeals process. Additionally, the college’s SAP appeals review committee is composed of campus administrators including the financial aid director, enrollment services director, and dean of academic counseling. And students are able to re-submit a SAP appeal during the same term.
The brief also outlines several solutions the federal government can take to ensure that underserved students are able to maintain their federal student aid. According to the brief, the policy should be updated to automatically reset students’ SAP standing after two years of non-enrollment, and there should be clarified guidance on school’s flexibility to create their own automatic SAP reset period.
Institutions should also be required to collect and report data on the impact of maintaining SAP on their own campus, so institutions can better align their SAP policies to meet the needs of their students. Additionally the term “special circumstance” should be clearly defined, but schools should also note that “any published list of circumstances is not exhaustive and that there could be other valid reasons for an appeal.”
“Improved guidance should empower financial aid administrators who assess and approve SAP appeals to use their flexibility with professional judgment to make way for students who previously did not meet SAP requirements based on circumstances outside of personal illness or the death of a family member,” the brief states.
Publication Date: 5/1/2023