Wednesday, June 27, 2018
Did you know that every student who is (a) receiving federal financial aid and (b) placed on academic probation must have a Satisfactory Academic Progress plan (or SAP) if they wish to continue receiving federal financial aid?
Students must “meet the basic eligibility criteria, make satisfactory academic progress, and fill out the FAFSA form every year” to qualify for federal financial aid. In order to make satisfactory academic progress, the student must “make good enough grades, and complete enough classes (credits, hours, etc.), to keep moving toward successfully completing [their] degree or certificate in a time period that’s acceptable to [the] school.” To see one school’s policy click here. If a student fails to meet certain academic benchmarks, then the student will likely have to enter into an academic success contract with their institution in order to maintain federal financial aid.
A typical SAP plan will detail the circumstances that caused the student to experience academic difficulty and the steps the students has taken (or will take) to ensure that they have the best chance for academic success moving forward. Here’s a straightforward example: a student who qualified for testing accommodations all through their undergraduate education does not apply for testing accommodations as a first-year law student, and then the student performs poorly on their first-year exams, and is placed on academic probation. That student's academic success plan would likely require the student to apply for testing accommodations before midterm examinations in the upcoming term.
A few weeks ago—following a change in personnel and university policy—our law school had the occasion to revisit our policies and procedures associated with our SAP plans. We quickly realized that we were not maximizing the opportunity presented before us. The financial aid contract could be used as a vehicle to, um…, strong-arm the very bottom of the class into participating in several academic success programs. Let me explain.
I frequently recommend that probationers enroll in my 2L multistate performance test workshop course to not only get a jumpstart on bar preparation, but also to revisit some fundamental legal analysis and writing skills in a small enrollment class setting. Under our Course Catalog, however, I cannot require it; students on academic probation are not required to, or prohibited from, enrolling in any particular courses. But, students on probation are required to get my signature on their SAP contract in order to reinstate their federal financial aid. With the administration’s blessing, I turned what was previously a “please sign this” interaction into a meaningful academic intervention. (Incidentally, the literature suggests that the U.S. Department of Education actually intended to create meaningful academic interventions.) Most recently, I met with several rising 2L students and each one voluntarily agreed, in writing, to my recommendations. If the student did not like a particular recommendation (e,.g. enrolling in the performance test course), then I worked with the student to find a suitable alternative to build those same legal writing skills, (e.g. attending a set number of Writing Center workshops during the semester).
Admittedly, a better long-term solution would be to adopt large-scale curriculum change and create permanent academic policies with regard to students who are placed on academic probation. But, that type of change takes time, resources, and political campaigning. In the meantime, I can use the financial aid forms as a mechanism to achieve many of my ASP-programmatic goals.