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Are There GPA Requirements to Get Financial Aid?

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If you’re not already familiar with the college application process, then you might be confused about how financial aid works — and with good reason. As a prospective college student, you may qualify for multiple forms of aid, including merit scholarships, need-based grants, loans, and work-study options.


Understanding the terminology and the ins and outs of the system can be complex. To start at the most fundamental level though, students and families need to understand the difference between merit aid and need-based aid, and familiarize themselves with how academic requirements (like GPA) can impact financial aid awards.


Need-Based Aid vs. Merit Awards


College students can apply for both merit-based scholarships and need-based aid. Financial aid encompasses both merit-based and need-based scholarships, as financial aid is any form of money, loan, or work-study that helps you pay for college.


The main difference between the two forms of aid is that merit-based scholarships are based on your academic or extracurricular achievements from high school. On the other hand, need-based aid is awarded based on demonstrated financial need. 


To receive need-based aid, students need to fill out the FAFSA and CSS Profile forms. The government will use this information to calculate a family’s ability to pay. Students can also receive need-based aid from states, colleges, and other sources. In general, need-based financial aid is comprised of both gift aid (grants that you don’t have to pay back) and self-help aid (such as loans and work-study).


To receive merit-based aid, students generally need to excel academically or through hobbies such as athletics, art, or music. Merit scholarships can be awarded by the college itself, or from outside organizations like the Coca Cola Scholarship. Additionally, merit scholarships are awarded to students with certain special interests or professional goals. While merit awards can make attending college more affordable, it’s worth noting that many many merit scholarships come with academic requirements, like a minimum GPA. You should also know that merit scholarships can impact your need-based financial aid award. Many colleges will say that your financial need is decreased due to a merit award, and take away need-based grants correspondingly. For more information on this topic, see our post: How Outside Scholarships Impact Your Financial Aid Award.


GPA Requirements for Merit Scholarships


Typically, need-based awards don’t include GPA requirements. After all, students meet a college’s academic standards simply by getting accepted. However, many merit-based scholarships require applicants to meet certain academic or extracurricular criteria to qualify. 


For example, the University of Alabama has full-tuition automatic scholarships for in-state students who have at least a 3.5 GPA and 32-26 ACT or 1420-1600 SAT. Other schools also offer automatic merit scholarships if you meet certain GPA and SAT/ACT requirements; here’s a list of colleges with these automatic scholarships. Even if a college doesn’t list GPA requirements for merit scholarships doesn’t mean that they won’t use GPA to vet potential recipients. You should always aim to have as high a GPA as possible to be eligible for the most awards possible.


GPA Requirements to Maintain Financial Aid (Merit and Need-Based Scholarships)


Further, both merit and need-based scholarships typically require recipients to maintain a certain GPA to continue earning them. 


Colleges have their own minimum financial aid requirements for GPA. This is known as meeting Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) status. If you’re concerned about your grades, it’s best to check with the financial aid office to find out the school’s policies, as well as those for your specific degree program. Additionally, students have to pass enough classes to progress toward a degree in a timely fashion. Students generally have three years to earn an Associate’s degree and six years to earn a Bachelor’s. 


State schools typically have less demanding GPA requirements for financial aid than highly selective private institutions. For example, the California State University of Northridge (CSUN) has a GPA requirement of 2.0 for financial aid. On the other hand, Harvard requires students to maintain a 2.7 to qualify for aid. 


While a majority of schools require students to maintain a C average (a 2.0 on a 4.0 scale) to continue receiving need-based aid, competitive majors may have more exacting standards. If you’re also getting merit-based aid, you will likely have to meet more rigorous requirements. 


While a student who fails to meet their school’s academic requirements will likely lose their financial aid until they are able to increase their GPA, it’s worth noting that some colleges issue warnings that allow students one semester to improve their grades. Students who are going through a difficult time can appeal for a temporary waiver of the SAP rules. Typically, students can secure SAP waivers if they suffer an illness or injury, or if a close family member passes away. 

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Stay Proactive to Avoid Losing Financial Aid


Staying proactive is the best way to avoid losing your financial aid in college, and that means meeting all your school’s (and major’s) requirements. Along with monitoring your GPA, it’s a good idea to familiarize yourself with the policies surrounding dropped courses. In some cases, students may be able to maintain SAP status by withdrawing from courses that they are likely to fail. However, it’s worth noting that most schools only allow students to retake a course so many times before it becomes ineligible for aid. 


When it comes to merit-based awards, students should investigate whether the organization reviews GPA every year or every semester. This information can impact the choices you make with regard to course selection and other decisions.


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Short Bio
A graduate of the Master of Professional Writing program at USC, April Maguire taught freshman composition while earning her degree. Over the years, she has worked as a writer, editor, tutor, and content manager. Currently, she operates a freelance writing business and lives in Los Angeles with her husband and their three rowdy cats.