An amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1998 requires a student applying for financial aid to answer whether they have any drug related convictions.
The law states that a student who is convicted of a state or federal drug-related charge is disqualified from receiving federal financial aid. The student can become eligible again if they successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program and test negative for drug use twice before assistance is reinstated.
The amendment, ratified April 28, 1998 went into effect for the 2000-2001 academic year as a question that appears on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form.
Question number 28 on the 2000-2001 FAFSA application reads: If you have never been convicted of any illegal drug offense, enter “1” in the box and go to question 29.
Sound confusing? Many students, parents and institutions, including the U.S. Department of Education, thought so. Hundreds of thousands of students left the question blank which resulted in delays in determining the aid packages for these students.
To help everyone better understand what the question was asking, the Department of Education included a one-page worksheet with the 2000-2001 FAFSA application. This worksheet outlines how this question should be answered and the consequences of the answers.
The consequences include the chance of losing aid eligibility for one year with one drug-related conviction, two years if there are two convictions, and indefinitely for three convictions.
If a student is caught selling drugs, he or she loses aid eligibility for two years with the first conviction and indefinitely for the second.
Joe Aiello, the Media Relations Director for Student Financial Assistance at the Department of Education, reported that as of Oct. 22, over 8.6 million FAFSA applications were processed. Of these, 1,327 students were declared completely ineligible and 5,675 were declared partially ineligible which means they received some aid, but not the maximum amount allowed.
The total number of students declared fully or partially ineligible to receive federal aid is around 7,000 out of 8.6 million, which is roughly .09 percent.
Some argue that, although the number of students declared ineligible is relatively low, since the majority of people convicted of drug-related crimes are low-income minorities, this law discriminates against the people who need aid the most.
When questioned about whether he believes this law discriminates against the people who need help the most, Aiello replied, “No, anyone can do drugs.”
According to Martha A. McGinness-Riley, Assistant Director of Student Financial Services at Temple, “Neither the Department of Education nor the schools have a way to check the validity of the answer to question 28.”
Aiello said, “We hope that everyone is honest.”
The Department of Justice is taking numerous steps to alleviate the problems associated with this law. The drug-related conviction question on the 2001-2002 FAFSA application has been reworded to read: “Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling drugs? Yes or No.”
A bill has also been proposed in the U.S. House of Representatives, which would cut back on the number of students becoming ineligible to receive aid by limiting the punishment to students who are convicted while enrolled in college. This bill is awaiting passage by the Senate.
“Everyone in [Financial] Aid had been distressed by this in one way or another and we are all waiting for the Department’s decision later this year,” McGinness-Riley said.
McGinness-Riley stressed that it is very important that students not leave the drug-conviction question blank on the 2001-2002 application because it will cause financial aid to be delayed.