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Drug Convictions - How They Affect Your Financial Aid

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A 40-year-old seeking a college education could – up until recently – be ineligible for federal financial aid because of a marijuana conviction more than 20 years ago. The Higher Education Act (HEA) was signed into law over three decades ago by President Lyndon Johnson. It opened the door to higher education for many students. It establishes federal financial aid programs such as Perkins Loans, Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants, PLUS Loans, and Work-Study Programs. The Act has been periodically reviewed and updated by Congress.

In 1998, Congress enacted an amendment to the Higher Education Act that denies loans, grants, even work study jobs to tens of thousands of would-be students every year who have drug convictions. These restrictions were harsh because they could prevent past offenders from obtaining a college education for a joint smoked years ago. They also forced students to spend more time working to pay for school, reduce their course loads, or drop out of school entirely.

Section 484, subsection R of the Higher Education Act of 1998 (HEA) delays or denies federal student financial aid eligibility to applicants with any misdemeanor or felony drug conviction. Applicants with a single possession conviction lose eligibility for one year from conviction date; those with a second possession conviction or one sales conviction lose eligibility for two years; and three possession convictions or two sales convictions cost an applicant eligibility indefinitely. In early 2006 the law was scaled back to be limited to offenses committed while a student is enrolled in college and receiving federal Title IV aid.

This law has many critics. Some of their concerns include:

It hurts lower income families. Denying financial aid to students hurts only those students who need the aid the most. Students that are well-to-do don’t have to worry about losing educational opportunities. They can afford the legal representation necessary to avoid drug convictions as well as the price of tuition without financial aid.

It is discriminatory. A large number of those in prison for drug offenses are people of color. The fact is that the majority of people and the majority of drug users are white. According to The Sentencing Project, African Americans, who comprise approximately 13% of the population and 13% of all drug users, account for more than 55% of those convicted for drug offenses. Hispanics are over represented as well. More than half of all federal powder cocaine prosecutions are against Hispanics, even though they do not use drugs at a greater rate than their population. There is no reason to believe that the racial impact of drug law enforcement won’t impact higher education via this law.

It punishes students twice for the same crime. The students having their aid cut have already paid whatever price the criminal justice system demands. It doesn’t make sense to punish young people in such a way that limits their ability to get an education and improve their lives. Judges handling drug cases already have the option of denying drug offenders federal benefits without the law.

It does not support the drug abuse treatment programs in which it purportedly seeks to enroll students. Studies reported by the White House Office of National Drug Control Policy show that for every $1 spent on treatment, $7 is saved in criminal justice, health care, or welfare costs. Treatment accounts for less than 15% of the drug control budget – most of those who need it don’t get it. While financial aid can be restored after successful completion of a qualifying treatment program, the provision does not allocate any money for treatment. The same students who can’t afford college without public aid are also unlikely to afford private treatment. The measure also does not distinguish between mere use and true substance abuse. Students who merely experimented with marijuana, for example, might be unable to find a program willing to accept them. They might take up scarce slots in rehab needed by actual addicts seeking help.

It will not solve our nation’s drug problem. The primary goal of the Higher Education Act is to make it easier, not more difficult, for all students to obtain an education. Limiting the student’s eligibility for federal aid is counterproductive. Denying students the opportunity for a college education brings us no closer to solving the nation’s drug problem.

It doesn’t take the seriousness of the crime into account. Misdemeanors are treated the same way as felonies. The law makes all controlled substance violations subject to the regulations and does not distinguish between marijuana or heroin possession. It also seems irrational to deny aid to a person with a misdemeanor marijuana conviction, while giving aid to a person with a felony rape conviction.

It ignores the major drug problem on college campuses. The biggest drug problem on college campuses is alcohol abuse. No one would seriously suggest that revoking eligibility for financial aid would be a sensible approach to that very serious problem. Additionally, the treatment provision is very broad and fails to distinguish between casual use and serious abuse. The fact that a student has been caught smoking a joint is no more an indicator of addiction than underage drinking is an indicator of alcoholism.

One in every 400 students applying for federal financial aid for college is rejected because of a drug conviction. According to the Department of Education, Indiana has the highest percentage of federal financial aid rejections due to drug convictions, with one in 200 students denied financial aid. Other states ranking above the national average are Oregon, California, Washington, Rhode Island, North Carolina, Connecticut, Arkansas, Texas, Kentucky, Oklahoma, Iowa and Alaska. Remember, even if you are not eligible for federal aid, you may be eligible for state or school financial aid.

The process of denying financial aid does not involve the colleges themselves. On the FAFSA, question 31 asks “Have you been convicted for possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving student aid.” Students who do not answer the question are disqualified from receiving aid. If they answer yes, they are sent a worksheet to fill out. This worksheet will determine whether the conviction will affect their aid. After completing the second questionnaire, the student’s eligibility is referred to a campus administrator, who handles each case individually.

A student can regain eligibility, however, by completing a rehabilitation program that includes random drug tests. It must also be qualified to receive funds from federal, state, or local government, or a state-licensed insurance company or be administered or recognized by a federal, state, or local government agency or court, or a state-licensed hospital, health clinic, or medical doctor. Some of these programs are difficult to get into. Students are finding that many of the approved treatment facilities will not enroll students who have used or possessed drugs, but are not technically addicted.

Legislators may still be clinging to the hope that suspending financial aid for drug offenders could be the magical incentive needed to finally win the so-called war on drugs. A report from the U.S. Government Accountability Office suggests otherwise. It was “unable to find conclusive research” that the restriction deters future drug use.

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Lenny Frieling almost 4 years ago Lenny Frieling

Thanks for the excellent summary. I'm a former judge and continue as a criminal defense attorney, in my 39th year of practice. I found this piece to be tremendously useful as an overview containing the information which people need. It occurs to me that part of the "standard plea advisement should include this material. It might be called a "collateral consequences," but it can be of great importance. Just as deportation or exclusion of a non-US citizen can be a drug violation consequence, student loan problems can be devastating. I just sent a suggestion to our elected DA, Stan Garnett, Boulder County, Colorado, suggesting that his team consider adding a reference to this consequence to the standard plea advisement.

Diana about 5 years ago Diana

Thank you for this informative article! I just received a charge for possession and had NO IDEA it could affect my financial aid status. I am registered for classes this coming fall and was planning on taking Stafford Loans. I'm still in the "research phase" but now I'm definitely thinking I should get a public defendant or a lawyer.

kathy about 7 years ago kathy

Valencia comments i agree with completely. I am the mother of a child who was with her husband, he was suppose to drop her off at a family members house. Thus instead he decieded to make a stop firtst and wound up selling to an undercover agent. My daughter comes out the store and there he is being arrested, they inform her of her rights as well, arrest her along with him. Now because of this she has a felony possession charge on her ,she never did drugs before. She has 4months community service, random drug screens, and over 2500 in fines, now tell me were is the justice in this. They could have drugf tested her in jail tto see ifg she was doing this. did they, no they didn't. So in this so called sosciety we are always assumed guilty instead of innocent till proven guilty. Her mistake having him drop her off at her dads home. I'm sure if she knew what was planned she never would have went in the first place. Her crime accepting a ride from her husband to her dads, hm stopping to conduct his business, Now were does she go to aply for financial aid, she was in the process of getting things together for her schooling, and applying. now she can't. Only outcome from this after 3yrs she can have her record expunged. But, who wants to hire someone with a felony on their record, even if by association of the other party, and not participating in their activity. Here's to the federaql system who wants all americans to have an education, and if you make a mistake and ircumstances show that it to be a mistake, can you not cut some slack, they can still do random test if you want to prove they are clean, till probation is over. This is heartbreaking to say the least. Her hopes of going to nursing school shot down the drain by her husbands selfish needs, i'm sure he didn't bother to explain this to her. This has left a strain on the family, she wants to work and can't. with this ,it just leads them to depression. , thinking they are shot down from get go. As a mother, i pray for all involved in a situation like this. He hasn't once said he was sorry for this deed, and probabl never will. His response was she shouldn't have accepted his ride, when she had no car and stranded with two kids. Some husband, she's since seeking adivorce with her familys help. and good riddance.

Biochemist over 7 years ago Biochemist

Denying somones financial aid because of a misdemeanor marijuana conviction is outrageous. Ruining somones future is far more likely to lead them to future drug use than enabling them succeed. Lets all light up our carcinogenic Marlboro cigarettes, because the govenment makes money off those... GOD BLESS AMERICA

Jose over 7 years ago Jose

Further proof, (as if any were needed), that prohibition does far more damage to society than the substances it attempts to 'protect' society from.

H. Goodman over 7 years ago H. Goodman

Great article! This is more evidence that the worst side effect and consequence from cannabis is the possibility of law enforcement ruining your life. Cannabis alone has no toxins, this is why you can never overdose from THC, there is nothing it in that can hurt you. Even potatoes have toxins, eating ten pounds or raw potatoes will evoke a toxic reaction. The fact of the matter cannabis is a very helpful plant. Police union lobbyist, beer lobbyist, pharmaceutical lobbyist, and private prison lobbyists are the only ones fighting to keep cannabis illegal. THE FACT OF THE MATTER IS people fighting to keep cannabis illegal do not care about the future of this country or the well being of a nation, they only care about themselves, and there bank accounts. Give me liberty or give me death.

FA Director over 7 years ago FA Director

The joke of this is that this question is based on the honor system. If you do not volunter the information, there is no way for the school to confirm if you have been convicted or not. The Feds do not have a database to match drug convictions to students. Answer Yes to incriminate yourself or answer NO and no one will ever know.

D'n over 7 years ago D'n

"The fact that a student has been caught smoking a joint is no more an indicator of addiction than underage drinking is an indicator of alcoholism." -- we're mixing apples with oranges here. Alcohol is provably addictive; marijuana just isn't. And the myth of the "gateway drug" is just that -- part of the layers of lies that continue what is essentially legislated racism.

Shannon over 7 years ago Shannon

Hey Valencia. I'm almost in an identical situation that you just described. Can you shoot me an email? I'd really like to ask u a few questions if you don't mind. shannonwiegand@yahoo.com

Valencia over 7 years ago Valencia

Excuse me for the last few Comments as far as im concerned yall should be part of the government...not everybody convicted of drugs meant that they did them or sold them...In my situtation I was 18 Years old I was a good kid always made good grades never got into trouble. I had got my own apartment and let my friend stay with me because he had nowhere else to go. Little that I knew while I was working a full time job he sold drugs out of my house right along with selling drugs out of my nextdoor neighbor house. I was 18 years old 8 mos pregnant working and proving for my home and child. One day I come home and my house was raided I didnt know what was goin on..at the time my friend that was staying there had cocain on him and left it on the floor.... I had got arrested for it and charged. I Never been in trouble before so I was afraid didn't have money for a paid lawyer. I took the Advice of my lawyer and took a plea because he was telling me if I went to trial I could do two years. I didnt want to lose out on my baby first year of life, Right after I took it the prosecutor told me I shouldnt have signed the papers because he wouldnt of charged me with anything Because he knew I didnt have anything to do with it....So at then end of the day Im sitting her with a felony on my record when I never sold drugs a day in my life. I was Trying to put a roof over somebody else head tryna help them out and Im stuck with this. Meanwhile I finished my probation paid my court fines. I cant get help from the state for food assistance, Cant find a good paying job, and cant go to school. So yes ima blame the government because just like yall they sit there and make life miserable for those who have made a mistake and is trying to be positive and do something with they life, but cant because they not being looked at as a person with a family to take care of they look at them as just a FELON...so its a different story for those that keep making the same mistake over and over...im not gone feel sorry for them but those in my situation that did nothing and trying to live they life right and cant get nowhere because of just ONE mistake ITs wrong...You that commented yall never been in my shoes so yall wouldnt understand or no so how can you comment.

Chris over 7 years ago Chris

Even with a felony drug conviction you can still financial aid. The first thing you need to do is a to drug rehab. Yes, there is a suspension to becoming eligible. Possession is a suspension of a year and sales is a suspension of 2 years. Once this is completed you are fully eligible to receive financial aid again. I know, because I fall into this category. Never just read what other people tell you. I did that for several years when I would have been eligible but never applied thinking I wouldn't qualify. There are specific questions that pertain to this and if you have completed everything required you are just as eligible as the next person. Hope this helps. Chris

ISM almost 8 years ago ISM

Um I just wanna say to all the people on here that believe your future, your dreams, your possibility of a better life should be taken away for a mistake or because you have the aliement of addiction...that you are truely immature, close minded, hypocritical people. There are a number of laws in the US that are broken everyday by children, adults, politicians, and etc. that are of a much more serious, dangereous, and ill-moral level. Just look at the news, the state of the union, economy, and the world. Pick up a book and read your history. These laws are a travesty. And the sooner we as a nation pull together and change our views on redemption, desiease, and what is over-all acceptable..the sooner we grow as a nation. How would you like it if your future was taken away for a traffic violation, or cheating on a quiz in school. One bad act does not determine character. Wake up, but first grow up! Start thinking for yourselves instead of becoming a cog in the machine.

Frustrated over 8 years ago Frustrated

This is a horrible law! I was recently charged with a felony drug crime for being in possession of a few adderall. Yes I made a horrible mistake and I was caught. I am senior college student at an Illinois University this incident has just about ruined my future in every way possible. I am currently paying for all college expenses out of my own pocket no help from my parents or through subsidized loans. I have survived college with only taking out a small amount of unsubsidized loans through FASFA. Not only am I now facing some vary harsh penalties which are equal too being in possession of heroin or ecstasy. Now i will loose any dream I have ever had for attending graduate school (which i had planned to do). Due too these extremely harsh law I now have little chance of getting a good job or attending graduate school. I have worked my whole life to afford school and graduate and now I made one single horrible mistake, I have essentially wasted $40,000+ and over four years of my life. I think I will be punished enough by the courts why continue punishing me the rest of my life?

Bryan Stilling over 8 years ago Bryan Stilling

Don't blame everyone for your regrets. Simply don't do something you know there's a chance that you will regret it one day. The only regret you should have is one of not doing something that could have potentially lead to greatness. Everyone comes from different backgrounds and we all know that we are not equal. Do you need someone else to tell you that you're different? There are many successful people out in the world who came from homes without enough money to pay for clean clothes let alone food. How do you think they got where they are? Hard work and they obeyed the laws; or were to smart to get caught. Those who got caught were caught on their own watch and if you need to pay for it for the rest of your life, then just tell yourself that you F'd up and get over it! See that wasn't a nice thing to say and nothing close to what you wanted to hear. How are you going to get revenge? By working hard and graduating college. After landing a job, if you still have any anger towards the government, don't pay your taxes haha! But seriously, you still gotta pay your taxes or you'll end up right where you started. Good luck

Joseph over 8 years ago Joseph

After receiving $423 ticket for a 1/4th of a gram I'm confused and bewildered at the idea that such a small piece of a plant would cost me so much. I'm now worried that i can't go to school after paying my dues as a citizen. The government doesn't care, I'm just another addict, a messed up teen on the road to violence and crime. What if i don't wanna be that. what if i want the help necessary to make something of my life besides a pot smoker. Laws should reflect reality and not morality.

Andy almost 9 years ago Andy

Don't do drugs! You all re a bunch of hypocrites; i bet all of you have drank beer in your life, oh I forgot thats not drug.

Dani over 9 years ago Dani

u know what ppl some of us grew up in a hostal and exposed life style. some of u knew health and stubility and some of us knew hussle and struggles.when i was young i did the only thing i was taught to believe i could ever do (sell drugs)i got into trouble 3 times rite in a row i did 2 years down and have been out 4 years now and i have changed every thing about me but an education still hinders me from moving froward.im 30 now have help steady jobs place of residences and true friendship and relationships. so do i have to struggle check to check the rest of my life for something i did over 6 years ago and paid my dues for

tara h over 9 years ago tara h

Don't use drugs. Well, if the horrific disease of addiction was that simple then there wouldn't be a problem....anywhere with anything. There would be no gangs, no violent crime, no neglected children, no domestic violence, etc., etc., etc. It's this failed logic that urges law makers to make these kinds of ridiculous and ineffective laws. I am a person who has lost nearly everything to addiction including my job. I've completed treatment and am choosing to go back to school. Because I have been convicted of a drug offense does not mean that I am not intelligent enough to attend school.

cameron r over 9 years ago cameron r

to mr dirtygardeningtool i would like to tell a story. i once was pulled over in my friends vehicle. this persons vehicle was searched and marijuana was discovered. i had no idea this person even used marijuana, and i did not use the substance either, yet i had to complete a drug counseling program just to remain eligible for federal aid. my insurance refused to cover the drug counseling and every bit of money i had saved working part time was spent on that instead of my books and such things not covered by my financial aid. i luckily got the charge dropped and i will be heading to college this fall with all of my student aid unnaffected. however the mental trauma and monetary loss which i went through in this situation i do not feel were deserved, helpful, or neccessary. this is a dangerous and unuseful law. if u were perfect i would not mind u putting ur response up here. but you are not perfect. i need not know u to know u are not perfect for the lord is the only perfect soul and he made none alike to him.

JWW over 10 years ago JWW

Easy for someone who has never been poor and willing to do anything to feed their family to say that more should be done. More should be done help people with obtaining an education than preventing them. How are we to succeed in life if we are forever opressed for a mistake made twenty years ago. Let he who has never sinned cast the first stone.

(no name) over 10 years ago (no name)

so what, dont do drugs then and there are no problems and dont hang out with drug users. dont blame the government for your past mistakes.

T over 10 years ago T

I totally agree with what you are saying. Can anything be done about this and if so who do I write to?