To remain eligible for financial aid, students are required to maintain satisfactory academic progress (SAP) standards outlined by the U.S. Department of Education. Students who fall short are placed on probation, which can have negative psychological and economic consequences that undermine a student's efforts to remain in good standing and complete college. The financial barrier is particularly troubling for low-income students, since losing financial aid can mean dropping out of college.


As part of our mission to help more students graduate, we committed $1 million to support MDRC's The Finish Line: Graduation by Design project, which explores student behaviors, college policies and institutional practices that prevent students from completing the credits they start. We wanted 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 ultimate goal of the project is to identify interventions that could address the issue, and thereby improve college completion rates—especially for students from low-income backgrounds.

In 2017, MDRC partnered with three colleges in the Minnesota State system to identify reasons for low graduation rates among their students. An April 2019 report on the project (see sidebar) details MDRC’s findings and offers six interventions grounded in behavioral science for colleges seeking to help students avoid SAP probation and maintain academic momentum. We believe the insights from this research can help colleges across the country reduce or eliminate barriers to postsecondary success, particularly those that disproportionately affect students from underrepresented groups.


Contact Senior Program Officer Sue Cui at