Students who have a drug conviction are ineligible for financial aid, but the Florida Student Association hopes to repeal this law. According to a drug provision in the Higher Education Act passed in 1998, students who have been convicted of possession or sale of drugs are temporarily or indefinitely ineligible for grants and loans depending on the number and nature of their offenses.
The FSA, along with 58 Congressmen and a coalition of student organizations, want to repeal this provision because they say it is unfair to students.
Steven Silverman, campus coordinator for DRCNet, an online organization trying to raise awareness of the consequences of drug prohibition, said the organization works hard to fight for students’ rights.
“We’re likely to take up any opportunity (to repeal the drug provision), but we know that a very likely time it will come up is during reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which occurs every four or five years,” Silverman said. “The last one was in 1998.
So the next one is likely to come up in 2003-04. And when that comes up, there is no way they’re going to be able to avoid this issue.”
David Foy, executive director for the FSA, said there are two colleges currently offering an alternative source of aid to students with drug convictions.
“Hampshire College and Swarthmore College are offering loans or grants to students that have had a problem getting their financial aid because of drug convictions,” Foy said.
The chances of a repeal to the drug provision Foy said is possible because the law’s author, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said the U.S. Department of Education misinterpreted the law.
“I don’t know if there’s going to be an entire repeal because he likes the idea of denying aid to those who have had drug convictions,” Foy said. “But since he’s saying that he meant to bar aid from those who were already getting aid when they got convicted, then at least the law can be modified.”
In order to become eligible for federal financial aid again, a student must successfully complete an approved drug rehabilitation program, Steve Runion, financial aid assistant director for USF, said.
However, the federal government does not pay for the rehabilitation program.
“That’s one of the problems with the law, it’s out of the student’s pocket,” Foy said. “For those that are economically disadvantaged, it provides a barrier to reinstating yourself.”
Students could also regain eligibility by waiting a year after their conviction date if it involved possession of drugs. Students convicted of selling drugs would have to wait two years to become eligible again. A second offense for drug possession adds on a year while the student convicted of selling drugs is barred indefinitely from receiving aid.
The law has proven confusing for the students, as well. The question on the FAFSA asking students, ‘Have you ever been convicted of a drug conviction?’ elicited many non-responses.
“One of the other problems is the law says if you do not answer the question on your financial aid application, it’s an automatic rejection,” Foy said. “…When the USDOE rolled it out, they started sanctioning individuals or not allowing individuals financial aid for this reason. It wasn’t really clear that you had to answer the question.”
But that was in 2000 when the law was just enacted. Foy said since then the U.S. Department of Education has reworded the application to make it clear to students that they must answer.Runion said he is unaware of any USF students being denied federal financial aid but didn’t rule out the possibility.
Runion said in 2000-01, Financial Aid sent 413 applicants a drug worksheet because the students had left the drug question blank and received 187 back. And in 2001-02, 237 students were required to turn in the worksheet, but only 140 turned it back in.
Mike Griffin, USF’s student body president and a Board of Trustees member, said students with drug convictions should be eligible for financial aid.
“They should at least be given the ability to get their life back on track,” Griffin said.
Contact Erika Pratesi at firstname.lastname@example.org