Students and families often want to know all about how to get financial aid, but it is equally important to understand how to keep financial aid. In addition to reapplying for financial aid each year, students must also be meeting the Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) standards at their institution in order to continue to receive federal (and often institutional) financial aid. Every college that awards federal financial aid must have a reasonable policy for monitoring progress in which students are evaluated at least once annually. The assessment must be both qualitative (Grade Point Average) and quantitative (pace of completion) and also ensure that students will graduate within the maximum time frame.

SAP Criteria and Examples

Grade Point Average: GPA, self-explanatory

Pace of Completion: Generally calculated by dividing the total number of hours the student has successfully completed by the total number they have attempted.

Example: Sally enrolled in 15 credits in the fall and withdrew one 3 credit class, but successfully completed the other 12 credits. Sally took 15 credits in the spring semester and received Incompletes in 3 of her classes, but successfully complete the other 2 classes (6 credits) with passing grades. Her pace at the end of spring semester is calculated:

18 earned credits/ 30 attempted credits = 60%

Because Sally’s school requires a 67% completion rate in their SAP policy, Sally would be suspended from financial aid.

Maximum Time frame: Students must complete their program by attempting no more than 150% of the total credits required for that program.

Example: Fred is in a bachelor’s degree program that requires a total of 120 credits to complete. He has attempted 150 credits so far and needs 36 more credits to finish his degree. 120 credits X 150% = 180 credits. 150 credits + 36 more to go = 186 credits. Fred is over the 180 credit maximum time frame limit and therefore no longer eligible for financial aid.

What Happens If I Don’t Meet the Standards?

If you are not making SAP, you may be given a warning period, usually for one term, in which you are still eligible for financial aid. If you are still not meeting the standards at the end of the warning period, then your financial aid will be suspended. If you are suspended, you may have the right to appeal that suspension.

SAP Myths

It is better to withdraw from a class than to stay in it and bring your GPA down.

This common assertion is not necessarily true! As you read in the pace example, course withdrawals and incompletes can negatively impact your completion rate and may eventually result in a suspension if you have too many of them on your transcript. It is possible to have a 4.0 GPA and still be suspended from financial aid if you attempt too many courses without completing them. Students should try to stay in their classes and complete the coursework instead of automatically looking to withdraw.

If you are suspended from financial aid you can never get it back.

Schools usually have an appeal process in which students who are suspended can petition the school for reconsideration of financial aid eligibility. Appeals are generally for students with extenuating circumstances, and should explain what prevented the student from meeting the SAP standards, and what has changed to allow them to be successful going forward. Supporting documentation such as a doctor’s note is always helpful. Your school will notify you in writing of the outcome of your appeal. If your school does not permit appeals (although most schools do), the institution must explain how a student can restore his or her eligibility for FSA funds. That might include paying for a semester on your own and meeting the standards.

Stay on Track

The most important thing is to be aware of your school’s SAP policy and try your best to meet the standards. Remember that the purpose of SAP is to ensure that students make progress toward completion of their program of study. SAP is not intended to be punitive, but if you do become suspended you have options. Only take courses that fulfill requirements toward your major, and complete all coursework to the best of your ability. If you find yourself struggling, take advantage of resources on your campus such as tutoring or faculty office hours. If you are considering withdrawing from a class, always consult with the financial aid and advising offices so that you are aware of potential ramifications. If you stay on track and communicate with key offices on your campus, you should have no problem making Satisfactory Academic Progress.

Caitlin Laurie has been working in financial aid for 10 years, currently as Associate Director of Financial Aid at Quinsigamond Community College in Worcester, MA.