College Game Plan

Why flunking or dropping that college class will dent your wallet

Key Points
  • The maximum Pell grant for 2018-2019 is $6,095, but you'll get less money if you drop from full-time status.
  • Drop below half-time status, and you'll need to start repaying federal loans.
  • Failure to maintain at least a C average and to complete a minimum number of credits could jeopardize your financial aid.
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If your child's thinking of withdrawing from that organic chemistry class he hates, tell him to hang in there and do the best he can — thousands of dollars in financial aid may depend on it.

That's because college students must meet a series of requirements, including maintaining a minimum C average and successfully completing a minimum number of credits, in order to qualify for the full amount of loans and grants they're expecting to receive.

In the worst case, students who drop from full-time to less than half-time — that is, fewer than six credits per semester for undergraduates — may no longer be able to take out federal loans and may have to start repaying what they've already borrowed.

"These days, almost every academic decision is a financial decision," said Sara Goldrick-Rab, professor of higher education policy and sociology at Temple University. "There is no such thing as 'Man, I really don't like that class.'"

"They won't know what they're losing until they talk to their financial aid officer before making the decision," she said.

Here's what you need to know if your child is thinking of going below full-time status.

Satisfactory academic progress

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College students are required to meet certain standards in order to ensure they're eligible to continue receiving financial aid.

That's what's known in education parlance as "satisfactory academic progress."

Though each school's policy on this may vary, students generally need to maintain a grade-point average of 2.0 or a C, and they must have successfully completed a specified number of credits by the end of each school year.

"You need to take and pass enough classes to be consistent with graduation within 150 percent of the time frame — or six years for a bachelor's degree," said Mark Kantrowitz, president of Cerebly, Inc.

"If you drop enough classes, you may lose eligibility entirely until you take and pass enough classes on your own dime," he said.

Tweaks to financial aid

In order to receive federal student loans, you must be enrolled at least on a half-time basis.

Part-time and full-time students are subject to the same loan limits: no more than $5,500 for dependent students in the first year of college.

If you drop enough classes, you may lose eligibility entirely until you take and pass enough classes on your own dime
Mark Kantrowitz
president of Cerebly, Inc.

How much a student receives in Pell grants, which are offered based on financial need and do not need to be repaid, will depend on enrollment status.

The maximum Pell grant for 2018-2019 is $6,095. Those who attend college on a part-time status will have their Pell grant awards reduced accordingly: Half-time students are eligible for half of the award.


Large group of students standing in line at college campus.
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If students fall below half-time status for more than one concurrent semester, their federal loans enter a six-month grace period and then repayment begins, said Megan Coval, vice president, public policy and federal relations at the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators.

Further, depending on the school and the circumstances behind the drop to part-time status, a college could require that a student repay aid already received, she said. Students should check these details with their financial aid office.

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Schools make a distinction between withdrawing from a class and dropping it, and this factors into whether a student is considered full time.

If a student enrolls in a class and drops it prior to the school's "add-drop" deadline, bringing him below full-time status, the school may adjust his aid.

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However, if he remains in the course beyond the deadline and withdraws from it, he may still be considered full-time and will be allowed to keep his financial aid package for that semester.

"If you withdraw after that date, it shows that you've attempted the class, so you get to keep your enrollment status," said Coval. "You've attended the class for a greater portion of the semester."

Students who are failing classes and stick around still run the risk of losing their aid: Remember that they have to successfully complete a number of classes to meet satisfactory academic progress standards.

"If a student is trying to drop a class that they are failing, keeping it may also hurt," said Goldrick-Rab at Temple University. "You're damned if you do, and damned if you don't."

How to proceed

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Think twice before allowing your child to bail from that class.

  • Talk to the professor: If your child is struggling and it's too late to drop the course, he should meet with the professor.

    "Maybe you're working too many hours and can't put in the time required for the class," said Goldrick-Rab. "Ask the professor to work with you." This may mean delaying assignments or obtaining an "incomplete" grade and finishing the work later.

  • Go to your financial aid office: Your child probably has to speak to an academic advisor before dropping a class, but be sure he understands what it means for loans and grants.
  • Consider the big picture: The longer it takes for your child to complete his education, the more money he'll need to finish college. Financial aid has a limit: For instance, students can only receive up to six years of Pell grant aid.
  • Understand "satisfactory academic progress": Withdrawing or failing so many classes such that your child is behind schedule to graduate will dent his financial aid package. He must take and pass enough classes to complete his degree within six years.

  • If you hate the class, get to work: There's a difference between dropping a class due to pressure from work and family, versus bailing because the coursework is too tough.

    "If you just don't like the class, study and bear it out," said Goldrick-Rab. "Make better choices next time."