Students who fall below satisfactory academic progress (SAP) standards, set by the U.S. Department of Education as a cumulative GPA of at least 2.0 and completion of 67% of the credits they attempt, are placed on financial aid probation and are at risk of losing their aid.

Federal law requires colleges to notify students who are falling short of 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 probation become discouraged and disengage rather than taking 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, low-income students 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."


Pilot studies by College Transition Collaborative (CTC), a research consortium at Stanford University, show that revising the language of notification letters to empathize with students and place greater emphasis on the help that is available can reduce the shame and stigma students on financial aid probation experience. Early evidence indicates that students who receive revised letters are more likely to seek out academic support, stay enrolled and return to good standing.

Our grant, combined with funding from the Joyce Foundation, supports CTC in developing a toolkit for college administrators to revise probation notification letters so more students return to good academic standing. The toolkit is being developed with administrators for administrators, so it will be usable and effective.

As of October 2017, CTC made significant progress refining and testing the toolkit through one-on-one discussions with college administrators, online surveys, and focus groups at relevant national conferences. CTC is developing the toolkit as an online platform to allow for broader dissemination.

In 2018, CTC released a beta version to 133 administrators to gather their feedback. The toolkit includes a three-part module with videos, downloadable PDFs and a draft-a-letter tool that walks users through the process of creating more effective probation letters. Survey results indicated that users are eager to revise their letters and excited to use the toolkit, which CTC plans to release in 2020.

We hope what we learn from this project will guide colleges across the country to better support students facing probation.


This project is complementary to an MDRC initiative we are supporting that aims to identify individual and institutional behavioral challenges that impact students' academic momentum and performance. Through both the CTC and MDRC initiatives, we seek to improve outcomes and increase graduation rates for students from all socioeconomic backgrounds.


Contact Senior Program Officer Toya Wall at