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Collaborating to Improve Academic Progress: A Success Story
Submitted by: Danielle Ballantyne
When the Department of Education issued new requirements for Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) for Title IV funds in 2011, it meant significant adjustments to an already challenging process at many schools. SAP has long been a tool for keeping students on-track toward their academic goals while ensuring the responsible use of Title IV funds. However, because SAP bridges both the academic and financial sides of student services, it requires a well-coordinated, concerted effort by multiple areas of the institution. The key to implementing SAP is effective interdepartmental collaboration to help students succeed.
Connecting Academics and Financial Aid
For example, five weeks into the 15-week term, students who show one or more interim grades below a certain level are instructed to meet with an academic advisor. These students also receive automated phone reminders about the numerous available AACC resources, activities, and workshops available to help improve their academic performance and future planning. Financial aid recipients receive a follow-up e-mail reiterating the importance of meeting with the advisor and resolving academic problems. This email reminds the student that failure to meet with an advisor can negatively impact any future appeal decisions. Outreach from both the financial aid office and CARS increases the possibility that students will respond while there is still time to resolve their academic problems.
New Regulations Require Revisions
We started by evaluating students' academic performance more frequently. Assessing SAP after each payment period allows AACC to monitor student success more closely and to more quickly notify students of available interventions and potential consequences of inaction.
We then developed a new approach to working with students who fail to meet SAP based on these more frequent assessments. When students fail to achieve at least a 67 percent completion rate and a minimum GPA of 2.0, their financial aid eligibility is suspended. Students may appeal each financial aid suspension.
The first time a financial aid recipient does not meet SAP, he or she must complete a financial aid Academic Success Plan with an academic advisor. The advisor identifies required courses needed to complete the program, sets an anticipated completion or graduation date, reviews the student's academic history, and discusses instructional formats that may be too challenging. The advisor recommends various student success activities specific to the student's needs, and may even recommend limiting the number of credits to be attempted in the upcoming term. The student then submits an appeal letter, documentation of extenuating circumstances, and the Academic Success Plan to the financial aid office for consideration in determining future eligibility for financial aid.
Students who continue to fail to meet SAP requirements after submitting their first financial aid Academic Success Plan must submit an additional appeal and supporting documentation. If the student's program of study has changed, he or she must meet with an academic advisor to complete an updated Academic Success Plan. Future aid eligibility depends on the student's compliance with these requirements as well as recommendations from the initial academic success plan.
The financial aid office reviews the circumstances outlined in the appeal, any supporting documentation, and comments received from the academic advisor. The financial aid office may impose registration restrictions on a student who demonstrates the inability to balance school requirements with life events. For example, we've noted that an increasing number of students are struggling academically due to working multiple jobs, being laid-off, maintaining a household, or caring for elderly parents. The registration restriction permits academic advisors to work with these students to create a realistic course schedule with the greatest possibility of achieving academic success.
Collaboration among Institutions
We decided on a case-by-case basis whether to grant these students some level of probation or deny the appeal with the opportunity to complete at least six credits at their own expense before re-appealing. We now have in place a systematic, manual process to request and review academic transcripts whenever we note potential problems. Our goal is to begin monitoring and assisting these students when they first enroll in AACC by requiring an Academic Success Plan and starting them at a level of probation.
Awareness of Pell runners led Maryland community colleges to collaborate on our SAP policies and to coordinate these policies with nearby Northern Virginia community colleges as well. While not all of our SAP policies are identical, this collaboration provides a level of consistency that helps prevent students who fail at one area school from moving to another institution without being held accountable. The addition of the Lifetime Eligibility Used (LEU) requirement in December 2011 and the availability of LEU data via NSLDS have strengthened this approach. Listing LEU information on the ISIR in 2013-14 will help schools to automate the process.
We believe students' success will increase as they become more aware of the impact their successes and failures have on their financial aid eligibility and recognize that they cannot simply transfer and start over. The aggregate Pell and loan abuses we have seen should diminish in the coming years, and should lead to an increase in certificate, associate, and bachelor degree completion.
Joining Forces Benefits Students