Tackling the Academic Probation Problem in Two Ways
July 27, 2017
Two Grants to Help Students Break the Probation Cycle
Students who don't meet satisfactory academic progress (SAP) standards set by the U.S. Department of Education are placed on probation by their college, and are at risk of losing their financial aid if they don't get back on track. For students from low-income families, losing financial aid often means the end of their college dreams. We're funding two new grants—with a combined commitment of over $1 million—to explore this tough issue. Through both initiatives, our goal is to break the cycle of financial aid probation to keep more students enrolled and on track to graduation.
How Can Colleges Better Serve Students at Risk of Financial Aid Probation?
Students who are placed on SAP probation face difficulties that reach beyond losing access to financial aid. Being placed on probation can also have a negative psychological impact, creating additional obstacles that undermine a student's efforts to address their academic challenges and remain eligible for aid.
As part of our mission to help more at-risk students graduate, we're committing $1 million to support MDRC's The Finish Line: Graduation by Design project, which will explore student behaviors, college policies and institutional practices that prevent students from completing the credits they start. We want to learn how colleges can reduce the number of students they place on financial aid probation and increase the number of students released from probation and restored to good academic standing. The goal of the project is to identify interventions that may help those who are at risk of SAP probation stay in college and ultimately complete their program of study.
To that end, highly respected research group MDRC will select faculty and administrators at two to four colleges in the Minnesota State system to work on building their college's capacity to diagnose and evaluate SAP issues. The colleges will identify individual and institutional barriers, and then work with MDRC to develop interventions to reduce or eliminate them.
At the end of the two-year project, MDRC will share insight with the field so colleges can begin to develop strategies to help students maintain academic momentum. They also will provide guidance to institutions about how to apply a behavioral framework to diagnosing and evaluating the SAP challenges colleges and students face.
Changing the Tone of SAP Probation Letters for Improved Outcomes
Federal law requires colleges to notify students who are falling short of satisfactory academic progress (SAP) standards that their financial aid is in jeopardy. In addition to that warning, the probation letter generally includes information about resources available—such as advising, tutoring and student success workshops—to help the student develop an academic improvement plan and ultimately return to good standing. Too often, however, students placed on financial aid probation become discouraged, and disengage rather than take advantage of those resources.
Part of the problem may be the tone of the letter itself. Research suggests that probation notification letters often make students feel ashamed and stigmatized, which may be a consequence of the way the letters are written. While they may contain information about available academic support resources, notification letters tend to emphasize compliance with federal requirements rather than focusing on students' needs. The problem is particularly acute for students of color, students from low-income families and students who are the first in their family to attend college, since receiving a probation letter may reinforce lingering doubts about being "college material."
To help more students graduate, we've committed $66,000 to a project focused on improving the way colleges communicate with students about SAP probation. This grant, along with funding from the Joyce Foundation, will allow The College Transition Collaborative (CTC)—a research consortium based at Stanford University—to develop a toolkit for revising notification letters to empathize with students' perspectives and more effectively encourage those on probation to seek help rather than give up.
CTC found promising results in pilot studies; early evidence indicates that students who receive letters that are more supportive in tone are more likely to seek out help, stay enrolled and return to good standing.
We hope what we learn from this project will guide colleges across the country to better serve students facing SAP probation and improve student outcomes.
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