T.E.A. with College Futures featuring Sarah Pauter

Welcome to T.E.A. with College Futures, a monthly feature dedicated to Talking Equity in Action with grantees, partners, and College Futures Foundation staff. Each month, we’ll highlight efforts addressing inequities in and around higher education and related to socio-economic mobility, and seek learnings and inspirations directly from changemakers.

John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY)

Satisfactory Academic Progress, or SAP, refers to the academic standing that students must maintain to be eligible for state and federal financial aid. Unnecessarily strict SAP policies can prevent students from receiving much-needed and expected financial aid and make it nearly impossible to complete their postsecondary education.

In July 2021, John Burton Advocates for Youth (JBAY) released The Overlooked Obstacle, the first of two publications calling attention to how SAP policies and appeals stand as barriers for maintaining financial aid, disproportionately impacting students of color, first-generation students, foster youth, and students experiencing homelessness. Since then, JBAY has become the state’s leading voice on SAP reform and continues to support colleges and universities with examining their individual SAP policies and adopting student-centered, equity-focused policies and appeals processes consistent with what is minimally required by federal law. Sarah Pauter, a senior project manager with JBAY, offers a SAP primer and shares how adjustments to existing SAP policies are key to advancing institutional and system-wide equity goals.


Q: What is SAP? What exactly are the components of a SAP policy?

A: This is a really good question because I think if you were to ask a student what SAP is they’d likely say they don’t know even though the stakes are really high. Essentially, Satisfactory Academic Progress policies are required at every institution and these policies must include specific components: students must meet a certain GPA, a course completion rate, and complete their program in a timely manner. Federal regulations indicate what the minimums are that campuses must include in their SAP policies depending on a student’s program and the length of that program, but what’s so interesting about this is that every individual institution can impose standards that are stricter than what is minimally required. That is one area where we have seen a lot of challenges.


Q: Why should people who care about higher education equity care about SAP?

A: SAP regulations were first adopted in the 1980s when the government was reforming a lot of our social welfare and social safety net programs. This was also an era when there was this political narrative unfolding where we were defining people as “deserving” and “undeserving” poor. There were a lot more restrictions and eligibility criteria put on our basic safety net programs – financial aid was no exception to that. Over time we have made a lot of progress in expanding eligibility criteria and being very critical of the requirements to access these much-needed services, but we have not used that same lens to evaluate SAP and ask if this is really helping students.

SAP disproportionately impacts students that have already been disadvantaged. We’re talking about students from lower-income backgrounds, minoritized students including foster youth and students of color. These students get to higher education and they access their Pell Grants and their Cal Grants and they get all of this support at the front end and then they are not able to maintain it. They lose their financial aid because of SAP and the likelihood that they’re going to be able to stay enrolled is extremely low, unless they can pay out of pocket.


Q: How does JBAY work to increase awareness of SAP among practitioners, advocates, and policymakers?

A: One of the strategies that we’ve employed that has been so helpful is having the data. We partnered with Educational Results Partnership (ERP) to look at first-year community college students who were receiving a Pell Grant, close to 77,000 students in total, and what we found is that 1 in 4 of those students did not meet SAP. We found that African-American and Native American students did not meet SAP at twice the rate of white and Asian students; for foster youth, 1 in 3 did not meet SAP for their first two terms and for African-American foster youth nearly 42 percent did not meet SAP. But beyond not meeting SAP for those first two terms, we wanted to know how many students stayed enrolled. What happened in that third term? What we found was that 58% of the students who did not meet SAP did not come back for a third term. Only 18% who met SAP disenrolled.

So we’re really trying to share this information as an enrollment and retention strategy. We want to make sure we have the least restrictive SAP policies and we’re not imposing standards that are stricter than what’s minimally required because that is ultimately what is going to keep students in school. We also recognize that each of the public higher education systems have equity goals around postsecondary attainment and graduation rates, so I think showing how disproportionately impacted these minoritized students are by SAP policies helps align this work to their stated goals.


Q: What was the aim of JBAY’s SAP community of practice? And how is the implementation of more equity-focused SAP policies and appeals processes moving forward?

A: For one year, we convened 23 colleges and universities in a community of practice with the overarching goal of taking the best practices that are in The Overlooked Obstacle Part One and working with campuses to institutionalize them.  All of the recommendations that we focused on were things that were incredibly student-centered and equity-focused, but also allowable under current federal regulations. We looked at what flexibilities were available and then encouraged financial aid offices to leverage those flexibilities.

One of our rockstar colleges that participated in the community of practice was Glendale Community College. They partnered with their institutional research team to figure out who was most impacted by SAP policies at Glendale and they found that they had a SAP policy that was stricter than federal minimum requirements. When their new financial aid director came in and made some adjustments, Glendale saw a 30 percent decrease in the number of students no longer meeting SAP. One of the key adjustments they made is reducing their course completion rate from 70% to 67%, which meets the federal minimum requirement. I want to emphasize too that Glendale’s financial aid director made immediate changes – in the middle of the school year – and without any additional staffing or cost.

Even though the community of practice has ended, word keeps getting out and there has been a lot more attention given to SAP. I’m starting to feel like it’s becoming more of a movement in California. For example we’ve been presenting at the California Student Aid Administrators Association conference for 2 or 3 years in a row, and we’re constantly asked by others to share new research and new information about SAP.


Q: If an institution wants to make SAP changes, where do they start?

A: One of the easiest things they can do is check out our self-guided institutional audit tool. The tool takes them through all of the components of their SAP policy and looks at where they might be imposing standards that are stricter or not even required; it also asks questions about how student-friendly or equity-focused their appeals process is and what changes they think would have the most impact on students. The audit tool is free and available for use and I do reach out to anyone who fills out to see if I can offer any assistance or answer any questions. That would be where I would start.