How Bad Grades Could Put Your Financial Aid on the Chopping Block

satisfactory academic progress

Some college students might justify a slip in their grades by saying a 2.2 GPA student earns the same degree as 3.8 GPA student.

But getting decent college grades matters. In fact, earning at least average grades is one part of making “satisfactory academic progress” (SAP), a key element of financial aid eligibility.

So if you’re one of the 86 percent of college students who, according to the National Center for Education Statistics, rely on financial aid like grants, scholarships, or student loans to pay for college, do your homework on SAP.

Why you should care about satisfactory academic progress

Federal financial aid refers to all funding the Federal Student Aid Office provides to help college students cover their costs.

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.

To the Federal Student Aid Office, achieving satisfactory academic progress shows you’re putting federal financial aid to good use. It also demonstrates whether you’re staying on track to attain a college degree — or just wasting taxpayers’ money.

How to maintain satisfactory academic progress

For many students, losing out on financial aid leaves them with no way to pay for college courses, which can be a real problem.

When it comes to college tuition, students pay, on average, $9,410 for in-state tuition at public colleges and a whopping $32,405 at private colleges. And that’s before adding in other education-related expenses like books, supplies, transportation, and room and board.

If you lose financial aid eligibility, 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 or with private student loans.

Here’s how you can maintain SAP and 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, certification, or training program.

Meeting or surpassing SAP standards shows you’re advancing through a program of study at a decent pace and performing adequately.

Here are the main components of maintaining satisfactory academic progress, per the Federal Student Aid Office:

  • 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 Fastweb.
  • 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: According to the Federal Student Aid Office, you’ll need to work toward “successfully completing your degree or certificate in a time period that’s acceptable to your school.”

The above standards are good guidelines, but the phrase “acceptable to your school” is key.

Essentially, colleges set their own SAP guidelines, which often vary by school, department, major, or type of degree. 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.

It’s also important to note that specific scholarships and tuition assistance programs might have stricter academic performance requirements. You should be aware of such conditions for your scholarships to ensure you’re meeting them.

2. Earn good grades

Failure to meet satisfactory academic progress is one of the most common ways students lose financial aid eligibility.

That’s why it’s important to understand how your college defines satisfactory academic progress. Review your registration and orientation materials, search your college’s website, or visit the financial aid office in person to find out.

Most students who don’t meet SAP requirements fail because of their falling GPA, according to Fastweb. So if you find yourself struggling with coursework, don’t let yourself flounder; be proactive.

Here are a few ways you can catch up and keep up:

  • Let your professors know you’re struggling but want to do better. They can offer direct help and point you to other resources to improve your academic performance. Also, take advantage of office hours.
  • Check out on-campus labs to get feedback on projects or learn challenging concepts outside class hours. When I found myself out of my depth in a college calculus course, the campus math lab was a lifesaver. It kept me afloat and helped me earn a decent grade.
  • Many colleges offer 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 this topic.
  • Develop study skills and effective time management on your own. Get started with this guide to study skills from MIT. You also can check out this professor’s 10 tips to get better grades in college.

On top of grades, you need to make sure you’re passing your courses and staying on track to graduate with as few credits as possible. That way, you avoid wasting tuition money on credits that don’t count toward your degree.

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.

Although you shouldn’t panic if you’re put on probation, you should take these alerts seriously. After you receive a warning or are put on probation, make it your No. 1 priority to improve your academic performance. Revisit the tips above to boost your grades.

Some schools also will set requirements for students on probation. You might need to meet with a college advisor, for instance, or write an essay outlining your plan to address issues that are holding back your progress. Make sure you fulfill any and all 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. You’ll need their help to discuss your options and find a way forward.

4. Submit a satisfactory academic progress appeal

If you’ve already failed to make satisfactory academic progress in a given semester or enrollment period, your school will suspend your access to financial aid immediately. Your financial aid also will be suspended if you fail to turn your grades around after ending up on probation.

However, there could be hope. Many colleges allow students to submit a satisfactory academic progress appeal. If emergency circumstances played a role in your poor academic performance, definitely consider this option.

“Reasons for appeal usually include the death of a member of your family, your illness or injury, or other special circumstances,” according to the Federal Student Aid Office.

Your school will have its own process for receiving satisfactory academic progress appeals, so find out what that is. This guide to writing a successful SAP appeal from Wayne State University might be a good place to start.

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. And should you lose financial aid eligibility, find out how to regain it and work toward this goal.

Although getting satisfactory academic progress back on track can be hard, with some patience, creativity, and a big reality check, it can be done.

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