November 11, 2023
SANTA CRUZ, Calif. — At 19, Elizabeth Clews knew attending community college while balancing a full-time job and caring for a newborn would be hard. But she wanted to give it a shot.
After a few months, the single mom, who had just exited the foster care system, realized she wasn’t doing well enough to pass her classes at Ventura College. “All I could really focus on was taking care of my baby and making sure that I kept a roof over our heads,” she said.
Clews thought her performance would improve if she quit work. But when she logged into the school’s online portal to register for a second semester, a message popped up that she described as saying, “You can enroll for classes, but you’re not gonna get financial aid.” Clews was in danger of failing to meet a standard called SAP, or “satisfactory academic progress,” which is attached to nearly all federal financial aid for higher education — including grants, loans and work study — and most state aid too.
“I didn’t really know it was a thing,” Clews said, “I didn’t understand any of the financial aid terminology.” But one thing she knew with utter clarity: She couldn’t pay tuition and fees out of pocket. So, she dropped out.
The number of students across the U.S. affected by satisfactory academic progress requirements each year likely runs in the hundreds of thousands, yet until recently the issue garnered almost no attention from news media, academics and policy makers. “It’s not a noisy problem” because it doesn’t impact people with social capital and power, said Christina Tangalakis, associate dean of financial aid at Glendale Community College in Southern California.
Now, a loose coalition of nonprofits, legislators and financial aid administrators are trying to reform what they describe as overly punitive, vague standards that keep many students capable of earning a degree from obtaining one. The state of Indiana was an early actor, creating a grant in 2016 for returning students who had “SAP-ed out” of federal funding. Last month, California enacted legislation to make all colleges align their requirements for “satisfactory academic progress” with the federal minimum standard.