Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) are the performance standards attached to federal financial aid. While eligibility for federal aid, including Pell Grants and student loans, is initially based purely on financial need as determined by the FAFSA, recipients must meet SAP standards for aid renewal. Institutions have flexibility regarding how they define and enforce SAP, but commonly require students to maintain a cumulative grade point average of 2.0 or higher and to complete at least two-thirds of the course credits that they attempt. In 2012, Congress added an additional requirement that Pell Grant recipients must complete their degrees in 150% of of the program length. These standards were designed to keep students on track.
However, frequently policymakers propose additional merit elements to need-based programs in the name of striving for completion. Increasing the GPA requirement, requiring full-time enrollment, or decreasing the time to degree requirements will only serve to discourage more students from persisting. At its foundation, federal student aid is designed to give the same opportunities to all potential students afforded to those who can afford to pay sticker price. Post-traditional students must balance many life factors along with their studies. Low-income students are more likely to take out loans and to work while they are enrolled in college. Placing additional burdens on these students who cannot afford to pay is not only inequitable, but it will not result in more students completing higher education.
To learn more about SAP requirements and low income students:
Meeting SAP is a non-trivial hurdle for many students: a quarter of first year Pell recipients at public institutions have GPAs low enough to place them at risk of ineligibility, representing hundreds of thousands to over a million college entrants each year, according to Lindsay Schudde and Judith Scott-Clayton in “Pell Grants as Performance-Based Aid? An Examination of Satisfactory Academic Progress Requirements in the Nation’s Largest Need-Based Aid Program,” (CAPSEE working paper, December, 2014).
If the federal government strives to address the low nationwide college completion rate, these incentives should be designed as separate from the Pell Grant program because their goals are different. Senator Claiborne Pell designed the Basic Educational Opportunity Grant to ensure access and opportunity in higher education. It is the policy lever to ensure access, but many supports are needed to ensure success. Today’s students are more likely to attend college part-time and need to balance work and family responsibilities with their school responsibilities. There are several policy initiatives that could help them do just that, such as institutional quality, stronger preparation, academic advising, work-friendly course scheduling, child care, and more.