Some college students might justify earning below-average grades by saying a graduate with a 2.2 GPA earns the same degree as someone with a 3.4 GPA.
But getting decent grades in college matters. Your GPA is one part of making satisfactory academic progress (SAP), a key element in qualifying for federal and school-awarded financial aid.
If you’re among the 85% of college students who rely on federal financial aid such as grants, scholarships or student loans to pay for college, do your homework on SAP. Each school has a different set of standards, so contact your college’s financial aid office or check its website.
Why you should care about satisfactory academic progress
Federal financial aid refers to all government-backed funding that Federal Student Aid provides to help college students cover their costs. The government gives out more than $120 billion a year in grants, work-study funds and loans to about 13 million U.S. students.
Although financial aid is widely available to students, it’s not exactly a free-for-all. Students must meet certain eligibility requirements, including maintaining SAP. If not, you risk losing your federal funds. Maintaining satisfactory academic progress demonstrates whether you’re staying on track to attain a college degree.
How to maintain satisfactory academic progress
For many students, losing out on financial aid leaves them without a way to pay for college, which can be a real problem. Financial assistance is critical to cover rising costs.
When it comes to college tuition, students pay an average of $10,230 for in-state tuition at public, four-year universities and a whopping $35,830 at four-year, private nonprofit universities. Some private schools charge more than $50,000 a year — and that’s before adding in education-related expenses such as books, supplies, transportation, and room and board.
If you lose federal financial aid eligibility or funding from your school, you’ll have to figure out how to cover your college costs on your own.
Spoiler alert: Your range of options will be limited. You’ll probably have to pay for college costs out of pocket, ask family for help or sign up for private student loans.
Here’s how you can maintain SAP and, in turn, your financial aid eligibility.
1. Understand and meet the necessary standards
Satisfactory academic progress is a set of standards that measure a student’s progress through a college-level degree or certification. It is important to understand that SAP is not just about grades. Good grades aren’t enough to maintain SAP — you could have a 3.5 GPA and still receive a warning.
That’s because there are multiple components. For example, the University of Virginia focuses on course of study, credit hour completion rate and cumulative GPA. You need to stay on track with all three.
Colleges and universities use their own standards to determine if you’re meeting educational benchmarks and on track to graduate on time. Throughout the period you’re receiving aid — not just when you apply — you’ll be required to maintain maintain your grades to receive grants, loans and work-study funds.
Meeting or surpassing SAP standards shows you’re advancing through a program of study at a decent pace and performing adequately. Here’s a deeper breakdown of the components of maintaining satisfactory academic progress.
- Earn good grades: Generally, you’ll need to have at least a C average or a cumulative GPA of 2.0 or higher on a 4.0 scale, according to several colleges’ guidelines.
- Complete a sufficient number of classes, credits or hours each enrollment period: You’ll typically be required to pass at least two-thirds of the credits you attempt each semester.
- Complete your degree or certificate in a timely fashion: You’ll need to keep up your coursework to stay on a reasonable pace to graduate on time. You’ll need to meet the requirements for your degree within a maximum time frame, typically within 150% of the program length.
- Understand the details of your credits: Make sure you find out how dropping a class, repeating a course, withdrawing, changing your major or transferring credits from another school impacts your standing.
The above standards are good guidelines, but the phrase “acceptable to your school” is key. As we’ve noted, each school uses its own process to determine if a student is meeting all their educational requirements and is on target to graduate on time with a degree or certificate. So be sure to research your college’s specific requirements.
For instance, although a 2.0 GPA is the minimum for most bachelor’s degrees, many graduate programs require that students earn a 3.0 or higher.
2. Keep up your grades and get help if you need it
Failure to meet satisfactory academic progress is one of the most common ways students lose financial aid eligibility, which is why it’s essential to understand how your college defines satisfactory academic progress. Review your registration and orientation materials, search your college’s website or call or visit the financial aid office to find out.
Most students who don’t meet SAP requirements fail because of their GPA, according to Fastweb. If you’re struggling with coursework and your grades are floundering, be proactive and take steps to remedy the situation. Here are a few ways you can catch up and keep up:
- Communicate with your professors that you’re struggling. They can offer help and other resources to improve your academic performance. Take advantage of their office hours. You may be able to rework assignments or take on extra work to boost your grade.
- Check out on-campus labs to get feedback on projects or learn challenging concepts outside class hours.
- Search for free tutoring programs, which you can use to get more one-on-one help.
- Sign up for a study skills course or see if your college hosts seminars on the topic.
- Develop study skills and effective time management on your own.
3. Take warnings and academic probation seriously
Most colleges won’t pull your financial aid as soon as your grades start falling. Instead, they usually will notify you with a warning that you’re close to failing the SAP guidelines. They also might put you on official warning or academic probation, depending on your school’s policies.
Don’t panic if you’re put on probation but take the alerts seriously. After you receive a warning or are put on probation, make it your top priority to improve your academic performance or get your coursework on track.
Some schools will set requirements for students on probation. You might need to meet with a college advisor, for instance. Your college may require you to retake a course or participate in tutoring sessions. Make sure you fulfill the conditions your college sets forth to get out of academic probation.
Whatever your circumstances and regardless of whether you’re likely to be granted an appeal, start talking to your college advisors and financial aid officers. Work together to craft a plan to get back on course. You’ll need their help to discuss your options and find a way forward.
There may be two potential loopholes to SAP requirements: You may be able to maintain your financial aid if you switch majors or degrees, or you transfer to another school. If your previous grades and coursework don’t apply to your new concentration or college, you may be able to effectively start over.
4. Submit a satisfactory academic progress appeal
If you’ve failed to make satisfactory academic progress in a given semester or enrollment period, your school will suspend your financial aid and explain your options for appealing or reinstating your aid. Most schools will communicate through your college or university email, so be sure to check that account regularly.
If your school suspends your financial aid, there could still be hope. Many colleges allow students to submit a satisfactory academic progress appeal. If emergency circumstances played a role in your poor academic performance, consider this option. You may have faced personal or financial hardship, such as a death in the family or an injury or illness that could be grounds for appeal, so be sure to communicate that with your school’s officials. You’ll likely need to submit documentation, such as a letter from your doctor or a death certificate.
Your school will have its own process for receiving satisfactory academic progress appeals, so find out what that is. An approved SAP appeals letter is an integral part of the process.
If your appeal is approved, you could be put on probation and be eligible to receive aid during that period. If you fail to turn your grades around after your probation period, your financial aid will most likely be suspended.
How often are SAP appeals approved? There is no industry standard. If your appeal is denied, you may have to wait for the next term to file another appeal. You can usually keep attending school, but you’ll have to find another way to fund your tuition.
Don’t let your academic performance fall by the wayside
As a student, you should do everything you can to meet satisfactory academic progress requirements and keep yourself in good academic standing.
If you’re falling short, take action right away. It’s much easier to course-correct before your financial aid is suspended. Most schools will notify you about your appeal within 30 days. If your appeal is denied, you can keep attending school, but you’ll be on the hook for tuition.
Should you lose financial aid eligibility, find out how to regain it, and work toward that goal.
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.
Alli Romano contributed to this report.