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The Overlooked Obstacle: How Satisfactory Academic Progress Impedes Student Success and Equity for Foster Youth

Socioeconomic and Class Issues in Higher Education
May 26, 2021

Access to financial aid is key to improving academic outcomes for foster youth and students experiencing homelessness and addressing racial equity issues. National efforts have focused on simplifying the application process for federal financial aid, providing tuition-free community college and increasing the amount paid by the federal Pell Grant. While these efforts are essential, they address only half of the financial aid equation. What has been largely ignored is that sizeable numbers of students lose access to financial aid after just one year of college due to Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) requirements and that these students are unlikely to return.


New research in progress from John Burton Advocates for Youth has found that foster youth are disproportionately impacted by SAP requirements along with students of color more broadly. This analysis found that one in four of California’s incoming community college Pell Grant recipients are not making SAP for their first two consecutive terms, disqualifying them from continued access to most forms of financial aid. Rates of SAP failure for Black, Native American, and Latinx students were more than twice that of white and Asian students. The highest rates of SAP failure were found among students with experience in the foster care system at 34 percent and African American foster youth had a SAP failure rate of 42 percent.


Research has found that college students are more likely to complete a degree if they come from higher-income families, have parents who went to college, have stronger academic preparation in high schools, enroll in college shortly after high school graduation, are committed to a goal of completing a degree and attend college full time without interruption. And yet, when it comes to the standards that govern maintaining financial aid, little consideration is made for the additional challenges faced by students from lower-income families, who attended low-performing high schools, or who cannot attend college full time due to work and family obligations. As a result, these students, who are also disproportionately students of color, have their ability to succeed in college further hindered by SAP requirements.


Pell Grant recipients who do not make SAP are, not surprisingly, significantly more likely to disenroll from college, or if they remain enrolled, to lose their Pell award. Fifty-eight percent of community college students who fail SAP during their first year do not return for a second year. Among those who do remain enrolled, the vast majority return to school without access to most forms of financial aid, further decreasing their likelihood of success.


The metrics above present a troubling narrative regarding students’ ability in general, and in particular, the ability of foster youth and students of color, to remain enrolled and maintain financial aid after the crucial first year in college. Given the greater likelihood that these same groups are low-income, attended poor-performing high schools and face other barriers to academic success, this is unsurprising. It remains problematic, however, and is an indication that SAP policies serve to reinforce the institutional racism that has put these students at a disadvantage in the first place.




While changes at the federal level to SAP requirements will have the greatest impact on this issue, individual institutions and states also can use local discretion to create policies and practices that can significantly reduce disparities and offer all students more opportunities to be successful. Examples of policies that can better support student success include:


  • Offering additional flexibility for the Chafee Education and Training Voucher program for current and former foster youth. The Chafee ETV program is authorized through the John H. Chafee Foster Care Independence Program. The program is not subject to Title IV requirements and therefore states have more discretion when defining satisfactory progress. For example, a law enacted in California in 2019 (SB 150) allows students to continue to receive funding beyond one year while not making SAP and can serve as a model for other states.
  •  Providing ample warning to students at risk of losing financial aid. Semester institutions should evaluate SAP at the end of each term to ensure that students receive ample warning and provide sufficient time to coordinate on-campus supports. Quarter institutions should evaluate SAP annually, to avoid the potential loss of financial aid after two quarters but should develop early warning systems to alert students at risk of losing financial aid.
  •  Implementing an escalating rather than fixed GPA requirement. Federal regulations do not require a 2.0 GPA standard for each term but rather allow institutions the flexibility to implement an escalating GPA standard. For example, a policy could require a lower GPA during the first year or for a specified number of units, ultimately requiring a 2.0 cumulative GPA by the end of the program. Cal State Fullerton, CSU Dominguez Hills and CSU San Bernardino are examples of universities with such a standard and College of the Desert, Evergreen Valley College, and Imperial Valley College offer community college examples.
  • Implement an escalating course completion requirement. Similar to GPA requirements, all postsecondary educational institutions have the option to implement a fixed or escalating course completion rate. For instance, a policy can permit students to complete a lower percentage of their classes in the first academic year but require them to complete an increasing percentage in subsequent years so that they finish their program within the 150 percent maximum timeframe. For example, UC San Diego and Butte College offer such policies.
  • Include a broad range of extenuating circumstances in Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) appeals policies. This allows institutions to take into consideration the life challenges that students from disadvantaged backgrounds are more likely to face, thereby creating more equitable access to financial aid. Campuses should not discourage students from requesting appeals by explicitly excluding certain circumstances in their policies such as work conflicts or employment demands, incarceration, or challenges with transportation, living expenses or childcare.
  • Provide intrusive academic success coaching to all students at risk of losing financial aid. Intrusive coaching is based on deliberate and proactive responses to emerging challenges, such as academic dismissal or financial aid disqualification, and involves staff monitoring students’ progress and reaching out as potential problems are identified instead of waiting for students to seek help. Campuses should implement intrusive coaching and ensure it is provided to special student populations such as foster youth and those experiencing homelessness.
  •  Create opportunities for students who have disenrolled and reentered to regain access to financial aid as quickly as possible. Students who attempt to reenroll after a period of disenrollment often find that a prior SAP disqualification presents an obstacle to their ability to attempt college a second time. Campuses should permit students to appeal upon re-enrollment to have their financial aid reinstated for the initial term of re-enrollment.
  •  Do not impose additional requirements beyond those required by federal law. JBAY’s analysis of policies found that many institutions went beyond federal requirements by imposing additional standards not required by law, such as evaluating SAP based on both cumulative and individual term measures; imposing limits on the number of times a student may request an appeal or creating appeal deadlines; and creating strict limitations on appeal circumstances.


A full report from JBAY will be available next month. For additional information, contact [email protected].


Debbie Raucher currently serves as the Education Director for John Burton Advocates for Youth. In this role, Ms. Raucher provides leadership and strategic visioning for JBAY’s education work and leads the agency’s policy efforts designed to improve post-secondary educational outcomes for foster youth and students experiencing homelessness.