What Is Satisfactory Academic Progress?

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By Mark Kantrowitz

July 19, 2021

Students must be making Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) to continue to be eligible for federal student aid.

Satisfactory academic progress requirements generally include maintaining a grade of C or better and passing enough classes to graduate within 150% of the normal timeframe.

A college’s satisfactory academic progress policy must be at least as strict as the requirements specified by the Higher Education Act of 1965 [20 USC 1091(c)] and the regulations at 34 CFR 668.34.

Academic Performance Metric

The college must evaluate a student’s academic performance after each academic term if the degree or certificate program is a year or less in length. If the program is more than a year long, the college must review the student’s academic performance at least once a year.

Academic performance is evaluated by reviewing the student’s cumulative grade point average (GPA). If the length of the academic program is two or more years, the student must have at least a 2.0 cumulative GPA on a 4.0 scale at the end of the student’s second academic year. That minimum GPA is the equivalent of a grade of “C”. Students who do not meet the SAP requirements are placed on financial aid suspension.

Time-Based Metric

The pace at which the student is progressing through the academic program must be consistent with graduation within 150% of the maximum timeframe.

For example, if a student is enrolled in a Bachelor’s degree program, the normal timeframe is four years. 150% of the normal timeframe is six years.

Likewise, the normal timeframe for an Associate’s degree program is two years, so 150% of the normal timeframe is three years. 

If a student is not on track to graduate within 150% of the normal timeframe, the student will lose eligibility for federal student aid as soon as it becomes impossible for the student to graduate within 150% of the normal timeframe. 

(Eligibility for subsidized Federal Direct Stafford loans has a similar maximum timeframe requirement, but only academic terms during which the student received a subsidized loan count toward the 150% maximum timeframe limitation. Switching into a longer degree program can allow a student to regain eligibility for subsidized loans, since the 150% timeframe limitation is based on the student’s current program. However, subsidized loans received during a previous program will count against the current degree program unless the student graduated from the previous program.)

SAP Loopholes

A student who is failing to maintain satisfactory academic progress may regain eligibility for federal student aid by switching academic majors or transferring to another college. 

These loopholes can exclude some attempted credit hours from counting toward satisfactory academic progress. Only transfer credit that counts toward the student’s new academic program must be considered when evaluating the student’s academic progress. This includes attempted credits, not just completed classes. Similarly, only credits that count toward a student’s new academic major must be considered when reviewing the student’s academic performance. 

Colleges have the option of considering credits that do not count toward the student’s academic program, but are not required to do so. Some colleges will count all credits, some do not.

Colleges can limit how many times a student can change academic majors, to prevent abuse of this loophole. 

Financial Aid Warnings

Some colleges will provide students with an academic warning or financial aid warning if their grades need improvement. If the student fails to improve their academic performance after one academic term, they will be placed on financial aid suspension.  Their only option at that point is to file an appeal of their failure to maintain satisfactory academic progress. 

Only colleges that check academic performance after each academic term are allowed to give a financial aid warning. 

Satisfactory Academic Progress Appeal

Students who are failing to maintain satisfactory academic progress may appeal financial aid suspension based on the student’s injury or illness, death of a relative of the student or other extenuating circumstances determined by the college. Most colleges allow appeals; some do not.

Students must make the appeal in writing and must explain why they failed to maintain satisfactory academic progress. The appeal must also identify the changes in the student’s situation that will allow them to satisfy the college’s academic progress standards. They must submit their appeal to the college financial aid office. 

If the student successfully appeals their failure to maintain satisfactory academic progress, the school may place them on financial aid probation, which allows them to continue receiving federal student aid. Probation for more than one academic term will require an academic plan that addresses the delinquencies that caused the suspension. The academic plan, which the student typically develops with help from a dean, includes realistic an attainable goals.

Academic progress must be reviewed after each academic term while the student is on probation.  If the student’s appeal is unsuccessful, or the college does not permit appeals, the student is no longer eligible for federal financial aid.

The student must demonstrate compliance with the college’s satisfactory academic progress policy before they can regain eligibility for federal student aid. This generally involves the student paying for one or more academic periods on their own, without federal student aid, while they improve their academic standing and meet their credit hour completion rate.

Private student loan lenders may also consider your GPA when evaluating your loan application. However, academic requirements will vary depending on the private lender you are working with. If you are interested in a private student loan, check out our top ranked picks here.

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