VCU Students

A student walked across Shafer Court on the VCU campus in Richmond earlier this year. Individual colleges’ policies on Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) can affect kids’ financial aid packages.

For most families, paying for college means relying on some form of financial aid, including student loans. Parents focus on getting a good aid package and expect it to stay in place, but there is a potential danger lurking in the system that can cause you to lose it all overnight.

This danger isn’t failing to file the FAFSA on time, or no longer qualifying for need-based aid, or getting convicted of using drugs. Those will cause you to lose your aid too, but there is another way that most parents aren’t even aware of.

It’s known as maintaining Satisfactory Academic Progress, or SAP for short. What does that even mean?

The federal government sets rules around financial aid. Students cannot just show up for football games, they must take and pass classes in an acceptable manner to receive federal aid. It sounds simple and reasonable.

The problem lies in the different ways that schools choose to implement these rules.

For many students and parents, the idea of academic progress equals GPA. Keep your grades up and you’ll be able to continue to get the aid you have in the past. The government agrees and says one part of satisfactory academic progress is having a “C” (or equivalent) at the end of four semesters.

But there is more to maintaining SAP than just having the right GPA. You must also keep earning credits at an acceptable “pace.” This is where colleges really vary.

The federal government allows students six years to graduate and receive aid. This means that students can pass 67% of their classes and be on track. Most colleges use this standard as part of their SAP pace calculations.

But not all do. The individual college policies reveal some surprises. James Madison University has an 80% pace requirement. Certain private schools are even tougher. Some use a fixed rate, and others use a graduated rate. In a rare twist, Christopher Newport University’s policy does not count a “D” for financial aid credit.

Pressure to perform is already in place. A recent survey showed 76% of students experience mental health issues at college, with getting good grades cited as the leading cause. The possibility of losing the aid you rely on only adds to the stress. Why would students want to stretch academically or take classes outside of their comfort zone when so much is on the line?

Surely parents have plenty of warning if there is a problem?

Not really. While it varies by school, the pace calculations are done after grades are in and students have gone home. At many colleges, if you have fallen short of the required progress, your aid is cut off then and there. No more grants, no more loans. The aid you rely on is gone.

If you want to come back to school and get your academic life back on track, you will be paying out of pocket. This is drastic stuff.

Won’t parents see the pace progress on the report cards?

Many parents are surprised to learn they do not get a copy of their son’s or daughter’s report card because of other federal regulations.

Virginia has a law that requires colleges to share grades of “dependent” students with parents. But even that is not automatic — at some schools, you must send them a copy of your tax return and passport just to see your student’s grades. In this day of rampant hacking and identity theft, who would want their private documents floating around the registrar’s office?

What should you do if you run afoul of your school’s definition of SAP? Some schools help by offering a warning semester, but even those that don’t have an appeals process. It will take some work to get an appeal granted, but don’t let that stop you. Talk to your academic advisor for support and to find out how to appeal. It may seem like a challenge, but don’t be intimidated. You are appealing to get your financial aid restored, not trying to change your grades.

Parents, before it gets to that, take some time to read your school’s policy on Satisfactory Academic Progress, especially concerning pace progress. Find out how you can access your student’s grades.

In the end, learning about SAP may help keep you from feeling like one.

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Jonathan West is the director of College Funding Group, LLC in Richmond and can be reached through www.TheCollegeCompanion.com. Contact him at jwest@collegefundinggroup.com.

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