New Push to Drop Drug Offenses as Barrier to Student Aid

"If Republicans and Democrats can agree on one priority for reauthorizing the law governing higher education, it's cutting down the lengthy application for federal student aid. Student advocacy groups hope that a FAFSA simplification push will include eliminating a question about drug convictions while receiving federal aid -- and a corresponding section of federal law denying aid to students with such convictions," Inside Higher Ed reports.

"At least one Democrat on the Senate education committee plans to reintroduce legislation soon to eliminate the question, a statutory remnant of some of the most punitive steps taken by Congress during the War on Drugs.

Data from the Department of Education show that about 1,000 students each year lose full or partial access to Title IV aid because of a drug-related conviction. Organizations supporting the change, however, argue those numbers don't capture how many students never apply for aid because they expect they won't qualify.

'Our research has shown there's a drastic deterrent and discouraging factor by the question even being on the FAFSA,' said Julie Ajinkya, vice president for applied research at the Institute for Higher Education Policy.

Access to federal aid has a huge bearing on whether students are able to attend and succeed in college, Ajinkya said. And because drug convictions disproportionately affect students of color -- who, research shows, use illicit substances at comparable rates to white peers but are disproportionately charged with drug-related offenses -- the denial of federal aid poses a racial equity issue, she said.

Question No. 23 on the FAFSA, which asks about student drug convictions, was originally added in 1998. At the time, lawmakers voted to deny federal aid to students who had ever been convicted of a drug-related offense.

Restrictions on student aid come into effect whether an applicant is convicted of a felony or a misdemeanor, whether the offense involved the sale or merely the possession of a drug, and apply to convictions under both state and federal law. That means no or limited funding from Pell Grants, Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants and Federal Work-Study as well as federal student loans.

After the restrictions took effect, tens of thousands of students began losing access to federal grants and loans each year. A 2005 Government Accountability Office report found that in the 2003-04 academic year, more than 41,000 FAFSA applicants were ineligible for aid because of drug-related offenses. Of those, 29,000 would otherwise have been eligible for federal student loans and 18,000 would have been eligible for Pell Grants. (Because the FAFSA does not collect data on students' race, GAO was unable to determine how minority groups in particular were affected by ineligibility issues.)"

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Publication Date: 3/7/2018

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