A new bill, signed by Gov. Gavin Newsom last month, will require higher education institutions to adopt a common set of student educational progress standards by the 2024-2025 academic year in an effort to make financial aid more accessible for students. Although the changes in AB 789 are intended to help underrepresented and marginalized students remove barriers that limit their ability to maintain much-needed financial aid, “satisfactory academic progress” (SAP) requirements and the appeals process should be standardized state-wide to establish a clear and equitable system for all students.
Currently, to qualify for financial aid programs, such as the Cal Grant, students must meet minimum federal requirements regarding SAP, including maintaining a GPA of at least a “C” or its equivalent. However, individual higher education institutions have discretion and can impose their own individual SAP requirements for financial aid purposes. For instance, both California Community Colleges and UC campuses require a GPA of 2.0, but UC financial aid offices check student “academic progress” at the end of their second year. If students do not fulfill these requirements, their financial aid is revoked and cannot be allocated again unless their case is approved through an appeals process. With varying and unclear SAP requirements across higher education institutions to maintain financial aid, many students are left unsure about the academic expectations to retain the financial aid they need.
According to the U.S. Department of Education, academic institutions must establish a “reasonable SAP policy” for federal and state programs, including the Cal Grant, that students must meet to qualify. However, the federal standard is very broad, allowing many universities to implement stricter SAP policies for their students. Some California State Universities, for example, allow students to “earn a lower GPA in their first few years, as long as their senior year grades average a C” — which differs from the four-year university standard that requires students to show “academic progress” in their first two years.
Furthermore, the different SAP policies across higher education systems and even among campuses create an unnecessarily convoluted process that makes meeting academic standards for financial aid confusing for students, particularly those planning to transfer between systems. For this reason, states should establish standardized financial aid academic rules that suit their population’s needs in correspondence with the minimum federal aid requirements. By banning stricter and varying SAP policies at college campuses, AB 789 sets a singular state-wide standard that simplifies the process for students and supports their ability to meet academic financial aid requirements.
AB 789 also establishes minimum communication standards regarding SAP policies and the appeals process. It expands the list of special circumstances that students can use in an appeals process, such as “homelessness” or the loss of “childcare” and “employment.” The bill also does not “limit the total number of appeals” students can submit during their enrollment period if they fail to meet SAP requirements. This grants underrepresented students the second chance that many other students have to be successful in higher education.
A report from John Burton Advocates for Youth, a nonprofit that advocates for foster care and homeless individuals, shows that 87% of students who did not meet SAP policies in their first two years lost their financial aid or were disenrolled. Students who do not meet the financial aid requirements should be offered multiple chances to appeal since many must balance a range of responsibilities, such as working full-time or caring for a dependent. Not doing so only widens the graduation gap among low-income and students of color. A 2021 study found, for example, that Black and Native American students are “twice as likely to not meet SAP standards” as white and Asian students. Restrictive policies that limit access to financial aid for marginalized students only reinforce inequitable college policies and needlessly increase graduation gaps.
Financial aid is the determining factor for many college enrollment decisions. The retention of financial aid is critical for guaranteeing students’ graduation. AB 789 is a step in the right direction toward simplifying the overly complex financial aid academic requirements along with other new programs, such as the Transfer Admission Guarantee (TAG) program. Still, more must and should be done to simplify the pathways to graduation for underrepresented students in higher education institutions. Establishing a clear, consistent set of standards and policies across systems and campuses is a good place to start.