New Federal Policy Puts Student Aid in Jeopardy

It’s a difficult economic time right now, to be sure, but it seems that higher education has had to bear more than its fair share as government looks to downsize its spending. Just months after state appropriations to universities suffered a major cut, a newly implemented regulation threatens to halt federal loans to students who require financial aid in order to pay for their college education.

And if this news is a surprise to you, you’re not alone. It came as a shock even to CCSG President Peter Khoury, who hadn’t been aware of the new policy until last month’s Faculty Senate meeting. But since then, he’s become painfully aware of how many students might be affected by the change.

“This week, I received three emails. Last week, I received four or five emails and two phone calls,” Khoury said. “They’ve all been the same story: ‘I received a letter in the mail that said my financial aid was on hold because I dropped a class or two once the semester started–even though I picked up a credit to fill that gap.'”

Indeed, while the shift intended to remove funding from students who struggle to succeed academically, an “unfortunate” wording has gathered a number of unassuming bystanders in its wake.

The new “Satisfactory Academic Progress” standard, which was implemented this past summer, requires students to meet benchmarks in order to keep receiving their financial aid–namely, completing 67% of “attempted credits” with a D average or better. Students can receive one “warning semester,” when funding will be frozen until they can reach that level before grants are cut off completely–but there’s no method for reimbursing students for lost funding, according to Khoury.

While requiring students to pass two-thirds of the classes they take wouldn’t affect too many Penn Staters, one of the finer nuances of the regulation threatens to.

That’s because the “most important thing for students to remember,” according to Paul Ferrara, CCSG’s Director of Academic Affairs, is that dropping a class, even during the add/drop period, counts against the completion percentage.

“The number of credits they use to calculate the rate is based on the number of credits you’re registered for on day one of the semester,” he said, “plus any credits that you add during the semester.”

“But they don’t subtract classes that you drop, and that’s the caveat right there.”

Ferrara explained the implications, and offered a hypothetical situation. Take a student who is scheduled for 18 credits on the first day of classes, but drops two three-credit classes during the first week, only to add two different ones. Because he’d be deemed not to have “completed” six of the credits, he’s already behind the 8-ball. He wouldn’t be able to drop another class, or fail any of his six. Doing so would cause him to lose his aid that he might well require in order to stay enrolled.

“This policy doesn’t take into account that most students like to play around with their schedule,” Ferrara said. “I know I did that most semesters, taking a class later in the day, or to change professors.”

“Personally, I think it was a poorly written change,” he added, explaining that most schools have this sort of drop/add period. He also suggested that for the many who weren’t already aware, the change could have potentially damaging results.

“I think there have already been students who dropped or added classes without knowing about this, and might find themselves in jeopardy already.”

Khoury added a similar thought: “I truly think this is going to be detrimental to those who aren’t aware of the changes.”

According to information from the Office of Student Aid provided by Khoury, more than 50,000 of the 90,000 or so Penn Staters enrolled across the state qualify and receive some sort of financial aid from the federal loan and grant program that this shift affects–ranging from those who receive $500 to a full tuition.

According to Khoury, those 50,000 students “are going to have their academic flexibility limited by their financial aid constrictions,” because “the way the regulation is set up, it’s not conducive to an institution like Penn State that gives students a lot of educational freedom.”

“Ultimately, as a result of this regulation, students could stop using the drop/add period, and it may force students to stay enrolled in classes they might not perform well in,” Khoury said, which would create a sort of Catch-22. Because a student might be wary to drop a class–even to switch it with an alternative–they might be stuck in a class they’ll struggle in academically, and have trouble meeting the 67% threshold as a result. And that’s if they happen to catch on to the policy.

Unfortunately for Penn State students, “our leaders in student government are coming in late in the game,” Khoury explained. Right now, CCSG and UPUA are trying to spread awareness of the issue, rather than to try an actively lobby against it–though that might come later. Khoury suggested that this might come up during the Association of Big Ten Students annual Big Ten on the Hill day in Washington in the spring.

But because so many simply aren’t aware–Khoury hadn’t heard anyone talking about the new regulations at Penn State’s counterparts elsewhere in the state–getting students to know the new standards imposed upon them is the primary goal. “This could be potentially the first time any headway is made from a student standpoint,” he said of this campaign.

More information about the new Satisfactory Academic Progress regulations is available at the Penn State Office of Student Aid.

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About the Author

Devon Edwards

Devon is a 2012 Penn State graduate and current law student at NYU. Devon joined Onward State in January of 2011, after a lengthy stay in the comment section. His likes include sabermetrics, squirrels, and longs walks on the beach, and his dislikes include spelunking, when you put your clothes in the dryer and they come out still kinda damp but also warm, and the religious right.

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