April 27, 2015

Understanding Grades and Academic Probation

If you have a bad semester and get a few bad grades, you may suddenly find yourself on "academic probation" or "academic warning."  What does that mean?  It sounds pretty bad, and many veterans wonder if they should stay in school or just drop out.  This article will help you understand what academic probation means, and how it affects your VA benefits, so that you can decide what you want to do next.

For more info: each school is a little different, so it's important to learn about your institution's specific academic policies.  You can usually find this information in the front section of your school's academic catalog, which you can often find on your school's website or in the academic advising office.  You can also ask your academic advisor or your school's VA Certifying Official.

Understanding your GPA

Before getting into the topic of academic probation, you'll need to understand how your Grade Point Average (GPA) is calculated. When you complete a term, you will probably get a grade for the classes you took.  Your letter grade is converted to a point value (this is specified in your catalog, but an "A" usually equals 4 points, a "B" usually equals 3 points, a "C" usually equals 2 points, a "D" usually equals 1 point, and an "F" equals zero points).  Then, the point value of each class is multiplied by the number of credit hours (or units) that class carried to determine "quality points."  Finally, all of the quality points are divided by the total number of credit hours or units you earned in that term, to calculate the GPA for the term.

For example, let's say you took the following classes, and earned the following grades:
Math, 3 credits, B
English, 3 credits, C
History, 3 credits, A
Biology with lab, 4 credits, B

You would earn the following quality points for each class:
Math 9 points (3 credits x 3 for the grade = 9 quality points)
English 6 points (3 credits x 2 for the grade = 6 quality points)
History 12 points (3 credits x 4 for the grade = 12 quality points)
Biology with lab 12 points (4 credits x 3 for the grade = 12 quality points)

Total credits earned = 13
Total quality points earned = 39
GPA for this term = 3.0 (39 points divided by 13 credits = 3.0)

Each following term, you will earn more quality points for the classes you complete, which will be divided by your total credits earned over time to calculate your cumulative GPA.  This means that when you are just starting out, each grade you earn will have a big impact on GPA, either good or bad. The further along you get, though, the less impact any single grade will have on your cumulative GPA, since they are averaged into all the coursework you've completed previously.  This means that once your GPA drops, it gets harder and harder to improve it with each subsequent term.

Academic Probation

Most colleges and universities require undergraduate students (that is, students who are working on an associate degree, a bachelor's degree, or a vocational/trade program) to maintain at least a 2.0 cumulative GPA. Graduate students and students in certain degree programs may need to maintain a higher GPA.  As long as your GPA is at or above this threshold, and you are completing an adequate number of classes toward your degree goal, then you are considered to be making "Satisfactory Academic Progress" towards graduation, and everything is fine.

However, if your cumulative GPA falls below the 2.0 threshold, you will probably be placed on "academic probation" or "academic warning," which is like a red flag to alert you that you are in danger of being dismissed from the institution.  Some schools also have an academic warning for students with an extremely low GPA in a single term, even if the cumulative GPA is above 2.0.

If you frequently drop classes and don't complete them, you may also be placed on academic probation for failing to progress adequately in your degree program, even if your GPA is above 2.0.

Academic probation is not the end of the world, but you do need to find out how your school handles it, and what you need to do to improve your academic situation (also called "academic standing").  Most colleges and universities require students who are on academic probation to limit their course load and contact an academic advisor.  Some institutions have additional restrictions, and you will need to find out what they are.  Again, your academic catalog will describe the policies that you need to know, and your School Certifying Official can explain any additional policies and restrictions that apply to your VA benefits.

Academic Progress and your VA Benefits

If you are using VA educational benefits and are placed on academic probation, your school is required to notify the VA.  You will receive a probation letter in the mail that gives you some additional information about VA tutorial assistance and other resources that may help you improve your academic situation.  The letter will go to the address that the VA has on file, so if you have your mail sent home to your parents, they will get the letter.  Just a heads-up on that.

If you are allowed to continue taking classes at your school while you are on academic probation, you may continue to receive VA benefits while you work to improve your GPA.  However, you are generally limited to just TWO consecutive terms on academic probation.  After that, your school certifying official is required to obtain documentation for your school's VA file that states the terms of your continuing probation, and what you are doing to improve your academic standing.  Each school has a different process for obtaining this documentation, so please be sure to ask your school certifying official.  You will not be allowed to receive VA benefits beyond two consecutive terms on probation without this documentation in your VA file.

If you improve your GPA and are restored to good academic standing, then everything is fine with your VA benefits and you don't need to do anything else, except stay the course.

Academic Dismissal

If you continue taking classes but do not improve your GPA to meet minimum progress standards, you may be dismissed from the institution.  Your transcript will be marked with an "Academic Dismissal" note, or similar verbiage, and that will be on your permanent academic record.  If your grades are really bad (less than 1.0 GPA), you may be immediately dismissed without being placed on probation first.

If you end up getting academically dismissed, there are more serious consequences for your VA benefits.  Your school is required to report your dismissal, and you may be required to repay some of your VA benefits.  You may also be barred from collecting VA educational benefits in the future.  If you are readmitted to the same school, your benefits can be easily restored, but if you change schools you will have to apply for reinstatement of benefits, and provide an explanation to the VA of why you were dismissed and what you've done since then to improve your situation.  It may also be hard for you to change schools, as some schools won't accept students who have been academically dismissed from a previous institution.  It's usually best to avoid academic dismissal in the first place.

Schools usually provide information to students who are dismissed that state the terms under which you may apply for readmission, if you choose to do so.  Normally, you will need to take some additional classes elsewhere to demonstrate that you can be academically successful, and then complete a readmission application form or packet.

Since you can only claim VA benefits for classes that count towards a degree program, you will need to declare a major at your new school before you can claim benefits for those classes, as they won't count toward a program that you've been dismissed from.

How to Improve your GPA

If you are placed on academic probation, it's best to respond proactively.  Rather than get discouraged, look at the situation as a positive opportunity to help you get back on track.  There are several things you can do to improve your GPA and restore your academic standing.

  1. Discuss your situation with your academic advisor.  He or she can help you create a plan to improve your GPA.
  2. Identify your challenges.  If you are missing classes or study time due to childcare concerns, or are having trouble focusing on school work because of financial or marital concerns, or are struggling with PTSD, TBI, or other injuries, you will need to address these issues before you'll be able to be successful in school.  Consider taking a break from classes if necessary, or solicit help from family and friends to get you through the tough times.
  3. Seek academic accommodations, if needed.  If you have a qualified disability, you may be able to get extra time on exams, copies of lecture notes to study, alternative media, reduced-distraction testing rooms, and other accommodations to help level the playing field.  To sign up for these services, contact your school's Disability Services office.
  4. Get a tutor.  If you need help with a specific subject area, don't be shy to seek the help of a tutor, even if that person is younger than you.  Your campus probably has a tutoring center that can provide help for the most common classes.  Free tutoring resources are also available online, especially for military and veteran students.  If you want to hire a tutor to help, you can also claim VA tutorial assistance to help pay for the tutor.
  5. If you find you're struggling in a class, and you don't think you'll have time to catch up, consider dropping the class, if you still can.  Depending on your situation, your VA benefits may or may not be impacted, so be sure to discuss this with your VA school certifying official first.
  6. Consider repeating classes that you previously failed.  Depending on your school's "grade forgiveness" policies, you may be able to repeat a class and have the old grade excluded from your GPA.  This is usually the fastest way to improve your GPA, as long as you get good grades the second time around.  Be careful, though - there is usually a limit to how many times you can do this, and if your second grade is just as bad (or worse) than the first, it might make your situation worse.  Repeating courses for GPA is tricky for your VA benefits also, and you'll need to discuss this with your VA school certifying official.
  7. Consider changing majors.  If you continually struggle with a subject area, you may need to consider changing your major to something that doesn't require as much of that subject.  Most of the A.S. and B.S. degrees require advanced math courses, while the A.A. and B.A. degrees usually require more humanities courses.  Again, your academic advisor can steer you toward a degree program that may be more appropriate.

Your academic advisor, academic resource center, and School Certifying Official may have some additional suggestions that will help you improve your situation. 

Bottom line: don't ignore it, and don't be afraid to ask for help.  Probation is just a warning phase to help you refocus your academic goals and get back on track, and there are many resources on campus that are waiting to help you do just that.


  1. AnonymousJune 17, 2015

    What happens if i'm out on academic probation at one school, and then iswitch to a different school will my benefits still be disabled?

    1. Hi Anonymous,

      If you're just on academic probation, your benefits will not be impacted at all if you switch to another school. If you are academically dismissed, however, you may need to provide evidence to the VA that you've resolved whatever issue you were facing that led to your dismissal before they will reinstate your benefits.

      Good luck!

  2. AnonymousJuly 18, 2016

    I know this is an older thread but what happens if your school just suspends you instead of dismissing you?

    1. It boils down to whether or not your school allows you to take classes. If you can take classes, you can get benefits. If you're not allowed to take classes, that's basically the same as being dismissed, but you should inquire with your school certifying official to see how they reported it to the VA.

  3. i just started school. i was in this program before, but did not complete. i reenrolled &now i am actively going to school to finish this program, but i am placed in some type of academic probation. when i first was in this program back in 2010, i was not the military & did not have VA benefits at that time . now, i did join the military & i am eligible for VA benefits.

    my certifying official at my school told me i can not use my benefits because of this probation.

    is this true?

    using my benefits would help me soo much, but i am unsure if what my certifying official is right because i never used my VA benefits before. this is my first time.

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