How Satisfactory Academic Progress Impacts Your Financial Aid

Students rely on federal aid to earn a degree, but maintaining satisfactory academic progress can be confusing. Learn how your grades can impact your financial aid options.
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  • Students who borrow federal loans are subject to satisfactory academic progress (SAP).
  • SAP policies are federally standardized, but policies can vary at the college level.
  • Colleges may not communicate SAP policies efficiently and effectively.
  • College students can take five steps to understand SAP better.

The cost of a college degree in the United States has never been higher. As a result, college students nationwide have often turned to student loans to finance their degrees.

The student loan system in the United States started in the 1960s as part of President Lyndon Baines Johnson's signing of the Higher Education Act. Since then, the U.S. Federal Government has guaranteed over $120 billion in grants, work-study pay, and loans for college students seeking a degree every year. Over 10 million college students need federal financial aid to help them go to college each year, according to the U.S. Department of Education. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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However, like any financial agreement between a person and a financial institution, college students must agree to and maintain certain requirements to remain eligible for federal financial aid. These requirements are known as satisfactory academic progress. And while it may be confusing, SAP is an important topic that college students should know, especially regarding financial aid.

What Is Satisfactory Academic Progress?

Since 1976, college students have needed to maintain satisfactory academic progress to remain eligible for federal student aid. At that time, the U.S. federal government felt it necessary to encourage students to complete their degrees promptly. Doing so would decrease their student loan debt and increase their time spent working, which could increase their lifetime earnings.

So the government created three criteria for students to meet to continue to borrow student loans and be eligible for work-study programs and Pell Grants.

How Do You Maintain Satisfactory Academic Progress?

Satisfactory academic progress consists of three criteria: grade-point average, course completion rate, and a maximum timeframe. The federal government requires that students maintain a cumulative 2.0 GPA and pass 67% of their attempted credit hours. They must also complete their degrees within 150% of a program's published length.

Even though these criteria have specific thresholds, maintaining SAP can be confusing, especially for first-year college students and first-generation college students.

What's Confusing About SAP?

First, maintaining a 2.0 cumulative GPA seems simple. At most colleges, a 2.0 GPA is an overall "C" average, with a 3.0 and 4.0 corresponding to "B" and "A" averages. However, different colleges may have different grading policies. Some use the plus and minus scale, while others allow students to earn satisfactory or no-credit grades.

In addition, schools may calculate SAP and cumulative grade-point averages at different times, with some colleges calculating SAP after every term. Others may calculate SAP after the spring term only.

College students must also pass 67% of their credit hours. Again, schools calculate these percentages at different times, with some colleges calculating pass rates in fall or winter terms while others calculate pass rates after every term.

It's possible that colleges calculate SAP requirements at different times of the academic year. For example, they may calculate GPA in the spring term and pass rates at other times. This can be confusing, especially if a college student changes their course load each semester or transfers colleges, where SAP policies may differ.

Finally, college students must complete their degree within 150% of a program's published length, known as the "maximum time frame."

For example, a bachelor's degree in sociology may require a "program length" of 120 earned credits, with a typical college course being worth three credits. In this case, a student could use federal student aid to earn 180 credits (150% of the program's published length) before losing federal student aid for exceeding the program's maximum timeframe.

It's important for college students to be allowed more federal student aid than is needed for the minimum program length. That's because college students often change academic programs or majors, transfer colleges, or require more time to complete their degrees.

However, a college student may have a stellar GPA and pass all of their courses but still lose federal student aid for exceeding their degree's maximum time frame.

What Should College Students Do?

If you're a college student — or a support person for a college student — here's what you should do for SAP:

  1. 1

    Understand that your grades matter. You may lose access to federal student aid if you do not maintain the three SAP criteria. And low-income students who earn a Pell Grant — a form of federal aid that does not require repayment — may lose their grant if they do not maintain SAP.

  2. 2

    Understand how your college calculates SAP and when it does it. All college students may have a bad semester or two, and their grades may slip a bit. However, when you have a bad semester may matter more than if you have one at all. If you have a bad first semester and your GPA slips below 2.0 right away, you may need to file a financial aid appeal if your college allows it. Make sure to ask your college's financial aid office about how and when SAP is calculated.

  3. 3

    Ask your financial aid office for help. At most colleges, the financial aid office calculates SAP. So you should know where the financial aid office is on your campus and how to contact it.

  4. 4

    If your grades slip, ask for help right away. Some college classes are challenging, and you may find it hard to earn the grade you want. Luckily, most schools provide a lot of help for students. If you feel comfortable, reach out to your professor if you're having a hard time with their class, and visit them during their office hours. Also, you can email your academic advisor to learn about your college's academic support services.

  5. 5

    If you are considering changing your academic program or major or if you are considering transferring to another college, do your research. Different colleges may have slightly different SAP policies and calculation timelines. Changing academic programs may affect your maximum time frame, while transferring may affect when your GPA and course pass rates are calculated. Before you change your mind, do your research and make sure you know how to maintain SAP in your new program or at your new school. is an advertising-supported site. Featured or trusted partner programs and all school search, finder, or match results are for schools that compensate us. This compensation does not influence our school rankings, resource guides, or other editorially-independent information published on this site.

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