Research in Higher Education

, Volume 57, Issue 8, pp 943–967

Pell Grants as Performance-Based Scholarships? An Examination of Satisfactory Academic Progress Requirements in the Nation’s Largest Need-Based Aid Program



The Federal Pell Grant Program is the nation’s largest need-based grant program. While students’ initial eligibility for the Pell is based on financial need, renewal is contingent on meeting minimum academic standards similar to those in models of performance-based scholarships, including a grade point average (GPA) requirement and ratio of credits completed compared to those attempted. In this study, we describe federal satisfactory academic progress (SAP) requirements and illustrate the policy’s implementation in a statewide community college system. Using state administrative data, we demonstrate that a substantial portion of Pell recipients are at risk for Pell ineligibility due to their failure to meet SAP GPA or credit completion requirements. We then leverage the GPA component of the policy to explore the impacts of failure to meet standards on early college persistence and achievement, earning a credential, and transferring to a 4-year college using two methodological approaches: regression discontinuity (RD) and difference-in-differences (DD). Our results across the two approaches are mixed, with the RD providing null estimates and the DD indicating statistically significant impacts, including a negative effect on early college persistence. We conclude by discussing the implications for future research.


Higher education policy Community college Need-based aid Persistence College completion Financial aid Satisfactory academic progress 

Supplementary material

11162_2016_9413_MOESM1_ESM.docx (295 kb)
Supplementary material 1 (DOCX 295 kb)

Copyright information

© Springer Science+Business Media New York 2016

Authors and Affiliations

  1. 1.Department of Educational AdministrationThe University of Texas at AustinAustinUSA
  2. 2.Department of Economics and EducationTeachers College, Columbia UniversityNew YorkUSA

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