Challenging a Ph.D. Program Dismissal on Grounds of Insufficient Progress

The last thing Ph.D. students expect to encounter in the rigors of their doctoral program is that their graduate school would tell them that they have failed to sufficiently progress in the program. Ph.D. programs can be hard, as one Higher Ed story attests. But they can also teach you more in a single term than you may have learned in multiple undergraduate terms, as the same story also attests. In the midst of that hard but productive work, a Ph.D. student doesn't want to hear that they haven't shown their graduate school satisfactory academic progress. You surely don't want to face doctoral program dismissal. If your graduate school has notified or warned you of unsatisfactory academic progress toward your Ph.D. degree, then you need expert academic attorney help. Contact national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm now for the help you need to preserve your Ph.D. plans.

The Value of a Ph.D. Degree

As terminal degrees, Ph.D. degrees can have definite and substantial value. To earn a Ph.D. typically takes first earning both bachelor's and master's degrees, if not also an associate's degree and other steps and stations along the way. A Ph.D. can mean not only elite standing and reputation, suitable for all kinds of posts, appointments, and opportunities, but also great pay. One Forbes article summarizes Payscale and Statista data on the highest-earning Ph.D. degrees. Those high-earning PhDs tend to be in the STEM fields, although not always. Other fields like economics also make the high-earning Ph.D. list. And earning a Ph.D. isn't only about increased prestige and income. It's also about opening doors to socially meaningful, creatively rewarding, and intellectually challenging jobs in teaching and research. Pursuing a Ph.D. degree takes a special person but fosters unique opportunities. For some energetic, creative, disciplined, and passionate thinkers, a Ph.D. degree is the only smart path, one of intrinsic value.

Investment in a Ph.D. Degree

On the flip side, or as a corollary, Ph.D. programs also require a substantial investment of time, mental energy, discipline, concentration, attention, and money. The money aspect of pursuing a Ph.D. degree isn't solely in the tuition, which grants, scholarships, and academic earnings may pay substantial portions. The cost of pursuing a Ph.D. degree also involves forgone earnings. And once you get any good way into your Ph.D. program, those sunk costs, social, personal, and economic, warrant completing the degree. Investments in doctoral education generally pay returns only or primarily with the awarding of the Ph.D. degree.

Obstacles to Completing a Ph.D. Degree

Completing a Ph.D. degree according to your original plan is not a given. Plans are good. But circumstances can, and often do, interfere with and delay plans. Short delays are generally not a problem. You may have taken a year off in your undergraduate program or a semester off in your master's degree program. Yet longer delays of multiple semesters or years can place your Ph.D. degree in jeopardy. The worst thing that can happen in those circumstances is to lose the opportunity to complete your Ph.D. degree on the cusp of having earned it. And that's where your graduate school's satisfactory academic progress requirements can raise their ugly head. If you suffer one or more of these common obstacles to earning your Ph.D. degree, or another obstacle not listed here, then you may need national expert academic attorney Joseph D. Lento's help with your school's satisfactory academic progress requirements:

  • engagement, marriage, childbearing, or child-rearing interruptions
  • home damage, home renovation, home loss, or home moves
  • employment, employment loss, or employment travel interruptions
  • unanticipated financial setbacks, losses, or burdens
  • mental or physical health issues and disabilities
  • injury or illness to a loved one for whom you must or should care
  • unexpected prime opportunities to travel
  • special appointments to or opportunities for premier public service
  • emergency call to serve a compelling charitable or advocacy interest
  • unanticipated changes in your doctoral advisor, program, or thesis
  • loss, theft, or destruction of doctoral files, resources, and materials
  • unexpected changes in law or policy affecting doctoral work
  • new scientific or historical discoveries concerning doctoral work

Satisfactory Academic Progress (SAP) Requirements

The perpetual college student is a myth, at least within any one academic program. Academic programs at all higher education levels routinely impose satisfactory academic progress (SAP) requirements for various excellent reasons. A Department of Education conference explains that satisfactory academic progress requirements are both qualitative and quantitative. The qualitative SAP measure is typically grade-based. The student's academic work must meet minimum performance standards. The quantitative SAP measure evaluates the amount of a student's work, meaning that the student must maintain a certain pace of progress. The reasons for SAP requirements influence how colleges and universities develop, adopt, interpret, and apply those requirements. Know the reasons for SAP requirements, and you may just gain an advantage in avoiding dismissal based on those requirements.

The Practical Reason for Academic Progress Requirements

The practical reason why colleges and universities adopt satisfactory academic progress (SAP) requirements is that federal financial aid requires satisfactory academic progress. Your graduate school offering you a doctoral program likely wouldn't be open without its ability to help you and other students qualify for federal financial aid. But to help you get that aid, which is a school's lifeline, your school must have an SAP policy. Here is what the federal government’s own website says about satisfactory academic progress:

“You need to make satisfactory academic progress in order to continue receiving federal student aid. In other words, you have to make good enough grades, and complete enough classes (credits, hours, etc.), to keep moving toward successfully completing your degree or certificate in a time period that's acceptable to your school.”

“Each school has a satisfactory academic progress policy for financial aid purposes; to see your school's, you can check your school's website or ask someone at the financial aid office. Your school's policy will tell you:

  • what grade-point average (or equivalent standard) you need to maintain;
  • how quickly you need to be moving toward graduation (for instance, how many credits you should have successfully completed by the end of each year);
  • how an incomplete class, withdrawal, repeated class, change of major, or transfer of credits from another school affects your satisfactory academic progress;
  • how often your school will evaluate your progress;
  • what will happen if you fail to make satisfactory academic progress when your school evaluates you;
  • whether you are allowed to appeal your school's decision that you haven't made satisfactory academic progress (reasons for appeal usually include the death of a member of your family, your illness or injury, or other special circumstances); and
  • how you can regain eligibility for federal student aid.”

Federal Satisfactory Academic Progress Laws

Federal regulations ensure that colleges and universities with students qualifying for federal financial aid maintain satisfactory academic progress requirements. 34 CFR 668.34 is the key federal regulation stating college and university SAP requirements. The regulation requires that schools show the Secretary of Education that they maintain a reasonable satisfactory academic progress policy. An SAP policy is reasonable if it meets the regulation's eleven requirements. While the regulation is very lengthy, complex, and detailed, 34 CFR 668.34 has these two key requirements:

  • The school's SAP policy for students receiving federal financial aid must be “at least as strict as the policy the institution applies to a student who is not receiving” federal financial aid. In other words, a school must not let students receiving federal financial aid drag out their education longer than students not receiving aid.
  • The school's SAP policy must provide “for consistent application of standards to all students within categories of students, e.g., fulltime, part-time, undergraduate, and graduate students….” For example, a school must not let some part-time undergraduate students drag out their education longer than other part-time undergraduate students. SAP policies can differ between categories but not within a category.

The Concern Behind Academic Progress Requirements

The two regulatory requirements just mentioned suggest the primary concerns that drive satisfactory academic progress requirements. Know these concerns, and you'll have a better idea of why your school pays close attention to SAP requirements. Foremost, the federal government must combat fraud in its public welfare programs to preserve those programs for candidates who will make good and productive use of them. Without satisfactory academic progress requirements, dishonest students, schools, rings, and scammers could more easily milk and bilk federal financial aid programs for millions in wasted tuition dollars. Federal financial aid fraud is a serious campus-wide issue. SAP policies help your school and the federal government combat financial aid waste and fraud.

Another concern that satisfactory academic progress requirements address is the fair and equitable treatment of college and university students. Satisfactory academic progress requirements don't simply put a time limit on graduation. They also impose minimum grade requirements. One purpose of those minimum grade requirements is to ensure that students who probably won't be able to earn the degree find that out as soon as possible so that they don't waste their time and money. If, for instance, a student receives failing or low grades in all courses in the first and second term, leaving a grade point average so low that the student will never recover the good standing necessary to earn the degree, the school's SAP policy should dismiss that student. To some students, SAP policies convey a hard but necessary message.

How to Approach Ph.D. SAP Requirements

Like anything, having the right attitude toward your doctoral program's satisfactory academic progress requirements can help. Don't treat your school's SAP standards for earning your Ph.D. as a draconian edict bent on destroying your trust. SAP standards aren't necessarily your enemy. They help keep the scope, depth, and breadth of your Ph.D. work within reasonable limits. If no limit existed to what you and your doctoral advisors could expect of you, then you might never earn your Ph.D. You might be in your hundredth rewrite. Your doctoral advisors know your school's SAP standards. They know you have a limited amount of time to produce a minimum amount of acceptable Ph.D. work. SAP standards help you and the school balance the quantity, quality, and duration of your work. They're like shoes: make them fit so you can get to where you need to go.

Ph.D. Program SAP Requirements

Doctoral programs have SAP standards, much like undergraduate and master's degree programs have SAP standards. SAP standards at all levels generally have grade, pace of progression, and maximum time frame requirements. Yet, the details of your school's doctoral SAP standards will very likely differ from the details of your school's undergraduate and master's degree SAP policies. The SAP standards for each degree level may be in the same school SAP policy, or you may find the different undergraduate, master's, and doctorate level SAP standards in other policies spread among your university's schools and programs. If you are evaluating your satisfactory academic progress in your Ph.D. program, then be sure that you are reading the right SAP policy. Get your institution's help in confirming that policy. If you and your school disagree on the SAP policy's application to your circumstances, then retain national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to advocate for your SAP compliance. Your Ph.D. degree may be on the line.

Time Allowed to Earn a Ph.D. Degree

The federal regulation for SAP requirements, 34 CFR 668.34, puts maximum time frames on undergraduate programs but not graduate programs. The undergraduate maximum time frame is 150 percent of the published length of the educational program, measured in credit hours or cumulative clock hours. But 34 CFR 668.34(b)(3) states that the maximum time frame for a graduate program is “a period defined by the institution that is based on the length of the educational program.” To your advantage, the regulation thus gives Ph.D. programs some flexibility in determining the maximum time frame for satisfactory academic progress. Graduate schools offering Ph.D. degrees will tell you the maximum time frame. Don't think the time is short, though. Federal statistics show that the typical time for earning a Ph.D. degree is about six years. And don't assume earning your Ph.D. degree is a sure or easy thing. The same source indicates that only 56.6% of doctoral students earn the actual Ph.D.

Calculating Maximum Time to Earn a Ph.D. Degree

A warning: calculating the maximum time frame to earn a Ph.D. degree depends on understanding and applying your graduate school's formula correctly. To determine whether you met your graduate school's satisfactory academic progress standards for Ph.D. students, you must correctly classify the units attempted, grades received, and semesters enrolled. Students make mistakes in calculating satisfactory academic progress. But schools make mistakes, too. If you receive notice that you have failed to maintain satisfactory academic progress in your Ph.D. program, and believe you have met the school's SAP standard, retain national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to help you advocate your school correct its miscalculation.

Satisfactory Academic Progress Warnings

Students in SAP jeopardy may have early avenues for relief. First, subsection (c)(2)(i) of the federal regulation governing satisfactory academic progress, 34 CFR 668.34, allows a school to place a student on financial aid warning when the student first fails to make satisfactory academic progress. A warning may cause a student to devote additional time, attention, or resources to the degree program to regain satisfactory academic progress. A school doesn't have to give a warning. The federal regulation simply permits a school to do so without requiring a warning. But a warning could be just what you need to address the issue before it's too late to do so.

Satisfactory Academic Progress Probation

Under certain circumstances, the federal regulation governing satisfactory academic progress, 34 CFR 668.34, also allows a school to place a student who has not made satisfactory academic progress on financial aid probation. Subsection (c)(3) of 34 CFR 668.34 states the conditions for probation. The student must first appeal the school's notice of unsatisfactory academic progress. The school must then determine that the student should be able to meet the school's SAP requirements. That determination presumably will require the student to advocate effectively. In the alternative, the school may “develop an academic plan for the student that, if followed, will ensure that the student is able to meet the institution's satisfactory academic progress standards….”

Once again, though, the school's willingness and ability to develop an academic plan to restore you to satisfactory academic progress will likely depend on your effective advocacy. The school may not know why your progress hasn't met the school's SAP standards. To develop an academic plan ensuring that you regain satisfactory academic progress status, the school is very likely to need to hear your explanation in a form that compels and enables it to help you. Retaining an expert academic attorney to help you communicate with the school is undoubtedly one way of convincing the school that your appeal is in earnest. If you are a Ph.D. student facing unsatisfactory academic progress, whether after or before the school's warning, then retain national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to help you effectively advocate for SAP probation and an achievable academic plan.

Satisfactory Academic Progress Appeals

Colleges and universities with students receiving federal financial aid may permit students to appeal a school's notice that the student has not met the school's SAP standards. If your school allows a SAP appeal, then subsection (a)(9) of the federal regulation governing SAP requirements, 34 CFR 668.34, requires that the school disclose “[h]ow the student may reestablish his or her eligibility” to continue. Your school should have a policy telling you how to advocate your appeal. 34 CFR 668.34(a)(9) also requires a school offering an SAP appeal to disclose the “basis on which a student may file an appeal[ such as] the death of a relative, an injury or illness of the student, or other special circumstances….”

Your school's SAP appeal policy should also tell you what evidence you must present and arguments you must make to win your appeal. 34 CFR 668.34(a)(9) requires your school's SAP appeal policy to disclose the information you must submit with the appeal along with “what has changed in the student's situation that will allow the student to demonstrate satisfactory academic progress at the next evaluation….” And if your school does not have an SAP appeal policy, then its SAP policy still “must describe how the student may reestablish his or her eligibility….”

In short, an SAP appeal may be your best avenue for relief to complete your Ph.D. program despite unsatisfactory academic progress. Yet, an appeal is a special form of advocacy for which most Ph.D. students have no training or experience. An effective SAP appeal requires:

  • timely submission of the appeal to the correct school official in the form that the school requires
  • citing authority within the school's SAP policy for the relief you request
  • identifying your appeal grounds that meet the school's SAP appeal standards
  • marshaling and organizing in a compelling form your evidence supporting those appeal grounds
  • analyzing and advocating that evidence in your written appeal brief
  • taking each of these steps in a timely and professional manner that confirms your ability to proceed with your Ph.D. program

Appeals are not for the novice. They are instead for trained appeal experts. Don't attempt an appeal on your own without expert attorney assistance. And don't retain a local lawyer who has no academic, administrative experience. Instead, retain national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to prepare and advocate your SAP appeal.

Excusable Reasons for Ph.D. Program Delays

The reasons for Ph.D. program delays may be as numerous as the Ph.D. candidates. Ask a Ph.D. degree holder, and you'll get the stories. Each person's path to a Ph.D. takes its own twists and turns. Few, if any, Ph.D. programs are swift, sure, and easy. In deciding what a good or bad excuse for a Ph.D. delay is, university officials are essentially making moral judgments. They are also often looking for circumstances beyond the candidate's control. The federal regulation governing SAP policies, 34 CFR 668.34(a)(9), gives as examples “the death of a relative, an injury or illness of the student, or other special circumstances….” Some reasons within a candidate's control may still be good grounds, such as when the candidate makes an obvious choice of pursuing a greater good, like care for an ailing relative, over completing the Ph.D. degree. Some obligations clearly outweigh pursuing a Ph.D. degree. But generally, good grounds involve unanticipated circumstances beyond the candidate's control, such as:

  • the candidate's own illness or injury is substantially interfering with the student's physical, mental, or emotional capability to continue
  • the illness or injury of a close family member for whom the candidate must or should care during a relatively defined and short recovery
  • hurricanes, tornadoes, earthquakes, or other natural disasters causing such disruption and displacement as to prevent continued Ph.D. studies
  • epidemics and pandemics making unreasonably unsafe access to laboratories, research facilities, conferences, and other Ph.D. resources
  • domestic violence, stalking, or threats of violence requiring the candidate to curtail normal movements necessary to Ph.D. studies
  • military call-up or other national or local security or emergency responder duties under pressing national or community needs
  • unanticipated appointment to a special and temporary position of urgent public trust

Insufficient Reasons for Ph.D. Program Delays

While many grounds may justify a candidate's delay in progressing toward the Ph.D. degree, some grounds would not generally excuse delays. If the reasons are within the candidate's sole control and do not plainly compel the candidate's attention to more serious matters, then the reasons are much less likely to be good grounds for delay. Grounds that are insufficient to warrant excusing unsatisfactory academic progress, under the usual circumstances, may include:

  • ordinary employment obligations taking the candidate's time, when the candidate should and could arrange for reduced or alternative employment
  • recreational, family, or business travel out of the country or away from necessary Ph.D. study resources
  • ordinary interference by family members, friends, or others distracting the candidate from Ph.D. work
  • carelessness, forgetfulness, and mismanagement or mistakes in scheduling Ph.D. work for timely completion
  • lost, deleted, or misplaced Ph.D. print or electronic files, communications, or other work, except in extraordinary circumstances of sabotage or theft
  • lack of interest, passion, or affinity for the Ph.D. thesis, or weak commitment to the time and effort that Ph.D. studies require
  • frequent changes in Ph.D. program advisors, preferences, thesis topics, or other program terms and conditions
  • inability or unwillingness to incorporate, address, and satisfy Ph.D. thesis reviewer critiques
  • inadequate laboratory, library, clinical, or other resources to complete necessary Ph.D. thesis work
  • inadequate knowledge, skills, or experience to develop, refine, and complete Ph.D. thesis work

Your Rights to Complete Your Ph.D. Degree

You have constitutional rights ensuring the government cannot deny you property or liberty interests without due process of law. The federal courts have generally interpreted those constitutional rights to protect your right to complete and earn your doctoral degree within reasonable limits. Due process rights generally protect you only against government action, not private action. If you enrolled in a public university's Ph.D. program, then you have due process rights. If you are attending a private non-profit or for-profit school, your rights are contractually based on what your school has represented and promised. In either case, public or private university, you must look to the school's promises and assurances, and your reasonable reliance on them, to determine the specifics of your rights to complete your Ph.D. degree.

In practice, private and public schools tend to require that you meet similar SAP standards. They also tend to offer similar SAP dismissal appeal procedures. The sections below give specific examples of SAP standards at public, private non-profit, and private for-profit universities. The point is that you have rights to enforce to ensure that you have a reasonable opportunity to complete your Ph.D. degree. Your school should be applying its SAP standards fairly, accurately, and reasonably. Your school should also be following its own reasonable SAP appeal procedures. Arbitrary and capricious school action, or action taken without any opportunity for you to explain your side, very likely violates your due process and contractual rights. Retain national academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm to enforce your right to earn your Ph.D. degree.

Private Non-Profit Ph.D. Programs

SAP requirements for Ph.D. and other graduate students at the University of Southern California illustrate how private non-profit schools treat the Ph.D. progress issue. USC's graduate school SAP policy requires its Ph.D. students to maintain a 3.00 grade-point average, higher than the typical 2.00 undergraduate SAP requirement. USC modifies that minimum 3.00 GPA for some professional school students. A Doctor of Physical Therapy needs only to maintain a 2.75 GPA, a Juris Doctor a 2.70 GPA, and a Doctor of Dentistry a 2.00 GPA. Credit/no credit and pass/fail grades do not affect Ph.D. program GPA.

USC's graduate school SAP policy also requires its Ph.D. students to maintain a 67% pace of progression, which means Ph.D. students must complete at least two-thirds of course credits that they attempt. Related to the rate of progression, USC also requires its Ph.D. students to complete the doctoral degree within a maximum time frame that depends on the number of units attempted within a maximum number of semesters. Attempting fewer than three units does not count as a semester, while attempting three to five units is a half-semester and attempting more than five units is a full semester. The actual maximum semesters for any specific Ph.D. program depend on the number of units required for graduation. A full doctoral student load at USC is six units.

USC graduate and professional schools notify their doctoral students when the student fails to make satisfactory academic progress. On the other hand, USC does not warn Ph.D. and other graduate students when they are below SAP standards before declaring them ineligible for financial aid. USC's graduate school SAP policy permits ineligible students to appeal their failure to make satisfactory academic progress. A student's appeal may show that a grade change brought the student back into SAP grade compliance. Otherwise, for SAP maximum time frame appeals, the student's appeal must show the Financial Aid Office that the student “changed programs, add[ed] a program, or ... experienced a one-time, extenuating circumstance such as illness or injury that has since been resolved.” An appeal of a pace of progression failure must show an “extended illness, one-time extenuating circumstances that have since been resolved, [or] enrollment limitations due to academic advisement.”

Public Ph.D. Programs

SAP requirements for Ph.D. and other graduate students at public colleges and universities are generally similar to those of private institutions like the University of Southern California. The University of Georgia's Graduate and Professional SAP Policy is a good example. At USC, UGA doctoral students must meet minimum grade point average, maximum attempted hours, and pace of completion requirements. UGA requires the same 67% pace of completion requirement as USC. UGA's SAP Policy limits doctoral students to a single maximum of 280.5 attempted hours. As at USC, UGA doctoral students must maintain a 3.00 GPA, although Juris Doctor and Doctor of Pharmacy students need only maintain a 2.00 GPA.

For-Profit Ph.D. Programs

For-profit online schools like Minnesota's 37,000-student Capella University also offer Ph.D. degrees under SAP requirements. Like the private non-profit USC and public UGA, Capella's SAP Policy requires its doctoral students to maintain a 3.00 GPA. Unlike USC and UGA, though, Capella requires its doctoral students to complete only 50%, not 67%, of attempted credits. That lower completion percentage may be typical of other for-profit online schools. Capella's maximum time frame measure is 200% of the doctoral program's required credits. Once again, for-profit online schools may relax doctoral program SAP requirements.

Capella's SAP Policy adds, “Doctoral learners engaged in the advanced doctoral phase of their program must meet additional requirements described in the procedures section of this policy.” Yet that procedure section declares, “Learners who are engaged in the advanced doctoral phase of their program are considered in compliance with this policy.” Capella thus appears to relax preliminary Ph.D. program SAP requirements further. On the other hand, advanced doctoral students at Capella need to show “successful completion of the comprehensive examination, dissertation, or doctoral capstone requirements within the prescribed deadlines described in the Capella University Doctoral Manual.” That Doctoral Manual requires advanced doctoral students to complete each Ph.D. requirement within 52 consecutive weeks.

What to Do When Dismissed for Unsatisfactory Progress

So, you need to know what to do if your school dismisses you from your Ph.D. program for not meeting its doctoral SAP standards. Above all, dismissal calls for your prompt action. Dismissal is not a time to “let things take their course.” You need to set the course. Your efforts make a difference. Your school will provide an appeal process, but you must invoke that process. You must put together your appeal evidence and arguments in the most convincing fashion and get your appeal in the right hands, ready to make a favorable decision. Nothing good will happen just waiting for others to help. You are your first and best ally. But locating, analyzing, applying, and understanding SAP standards and procedures may not be within your skillset. You very probably do need help. And the help you get should be from an advocate trained, equipped, and experienced with SAP appeals.

Fortunately, such an advocate exists. National academic attorney Joseph D. Lento has devoted his extensive law career and his law firm's personnel and resources to helping college and university students who face dismissal. Specialization of that kind is hugely valuable and hard to find. Attorney Lento also has the passion and commitment of an outstanding advocate. He knows the value of higher education. He also knows how hard students work, how much they pay, and how much they hope to benefit from their college or university education. Drawing on that knowledge, passion, and commitment, attorney Lento has helped hundreds of students avoid dismissal so that they can continue toward completing their degrees. Your first and best move is to call attorney Lento at 888-535-3686 or contact his firm online. Do so, now. Take immediate action, no matter how discouraged you may feel. Hope is on the horizon.

Retain an Expert Academic Attorney for Ph.D. Dismissal

If you or someone you love faces Ph.D. program dismissal for lack of satisfactory academic progress, then get expert attorney help. With all that Ph.D. students have at stake, they shouldn't be throwing away their investment. National academic attorney Joseph D. Lento and the Lento Law Firm are available to help prove the school's mistake in applying its SAP requirements or prepare an aggressive appeal proving special circumstances. SAP appeals are not for general practitioner attorneys. SAP appeals require understanding academic norms and practices, applying complex SAP policies, and following arcane academic, administrative procedures. Attorney Lento and the expert team at the Lento Law Firm have the knowledge, skills, and experience you need for SAP review and appeal. Call 888-535-3686 to schedule a Lento Law Firm consultation or use the online service.