Around 84% of U.S. college students receive some form of federal financial aid. However, it’s important to make satisfactory academic progress (SAP), otherwise you risk losing this benefit.
Every school has a different set of SAP standards. In general, you’re expected to maintain a certain GPA while making steady progress toward obtaining your degree.
Let’s take a closer look at SAP and what to do if you find yourself falling behind.
Why satisfactory academic progress is important
For many students, federal financial aid is the only way they can afford college. In fact, more than 10 million U.S. college students benefit from the government’s annual distribution of $150 billion in grants, work-study funds and federal student loans.
However, federal aid isn’t a free-for-all. Students must meet and maintain certain requirements to continue to receive financial support, including adhering to their school’s satisfactory academic progress (SAP) policy. Failure to do so could result in a financial aid warning or probation, which may affect your future eligibility for aid.
Without a financial aid package, you will have to find another way to cover your college costs, such as paying out of pocket, asking family for help or applying for private student loans — although many private lenders also impose SAP restrictions.
Furthermore, certain schools won’t accept alternative loans if you don’t meet their SAP standards.
How to maintain satisfactory academic progress
It’s up to the college or university to define its own SAP standards. Furthermore, your school’s SAP terms may vary, based on whether you’re an undergraduate, graduate or professional student.
In order to fulfill a school’s SAP requirements and continue receiving financial aid, students typically need to meet the following:
- Earn good grades: For undergraduate programs, you’ll usually need to maintain a C average or higher, or a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0 on a 4.0 scale. Graduate programs often require a minimum GPA of 3.0.
- Pass a certain percentage of classes: Most schools require you to earn credit for at least 67% of your enrolled classes each semester. Make sure you find out how dropping a class, repeating a course, withdrawing, changing your major or transferring credits from another school impacts your SAP standing.
- Complete your degree within a specified timeframe: Many programs want you to finish your degree within 150% of the typical program length. For example, since a bachelor’s degree most often takes four years to complete, you’d have a six-year window to fulfill all the requirements. (You can also see our guide on how to finish college faster.)
Keep in mind that SAP rules apply to the entire period you’re receiving aid — not just when you apply. Also, specific scholarships might have even stricter academic performance requirements than the ones outlined here.
It’s worth talking to your school’s financial aid advisors to understand their specific SAP policy. Some schools even have a SAP calculator on their website to help monitor your progress.
What happens if you don’t meet your college’s SAP standards?
Most colleges won’t immediately pull your financial aid as soon as your grades start slipping. Instead, they usually issue a warning that you’re close to failing the SAP guidelines.
Your financial aid should still continue during the warning period, which generally lasts one semester. During that time you should use all the resources available to help boost your grades, such as learning and tutoring centers.
Ultimately, if you fail to meet your school’s progress requirements after the one-semester warning period ends, your financial aid may be suspended.
How to appeal financial aid suspension
If your school suspends your financial aid, you can check to see if they allow for a SAP appeal. You will most likely need to provide a one-page letter that explains what happened and what you plan to do to correct it.
Here are some common situations where an appeal might be considered:
- Personal hardship: If you or a close family member experienced a critical illness or injury, or you’ve faced financial hardship, you can communicate this with your school’s officials.
- Death in the family: You’ll likely need to submit documentation, such as a death certificate or obituary.
- Emergency circumstances: Perhaps you’ve been the victim of domestic violence or have been struggling with legal or family issues. These are all details that can go into your SAP appeal letter.
Additionally, you’ll want to outline the specific steps you plan to take to improve your academic standing, such as repeating failed classes, signing up for tutoring sessions or enrolling for summer school.
Understanding your SAP appeal results
Most schools will notify you about your appeal within 30 days. However, there is no industry standard on how often SAP appeals are approved. Ultimately, it’s up to your school to approve or deny your appeal based on your specific circumstances.
If your appeal is approved, you could be put on probation, which typically allows you one semester to rectify the issues while still receiving federal financial aid. Your school might impose extra stipulations, such as creating and sticking to an academic plan. If you fail to meet the criteria by the end of your probation period, your financial aid will most likely be suspended.
If your appeal is denied, you might be able to apply again. However, some schools have stipulations on how many times you can submit an appeal. Either way, you can usually keep attending school, but you’ll have to find another way to fund your tuition. (See our guide to college without financial aid here.)
Alternatively, you could consider a potential SAP workaround, which is to switch majors or degrees, or transfer to another school. For example, if your previous grades and coursework don’t apply to your new concentration or college, you might be able to start over. This probably isn’t the best plan of action, though, since many schools review your past academic performance when determining your eligibility for aid. Also, a transfer could affect your college loans.
In the end, the best plan of action is to work hard to stay on top of your coursework and to reach out for help before you start failing. Although getting satisfactory academic progress back on track can be hard, with some patience, creativity, commitment and a big reality check, it can be done.