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FAFSA drug question may delay financial aid

PORTLAND STATE UNIVERSITY — Students who fail to answer a drug conviction question on their financial aid applications will find their applications delayed, though almost never denied.

Sam Collie, Portland State director of financial aid, said the student who has just one conviction for possession will still be eligible for aid. But failure or refusal to answer the question on the application automatically stops the aid process.

“If they’re convicted for selling drugs, they may be ineligible for a period of time,” he said. ÒRepeated convictions can result in denial.”

Federal government figures for last year show that answering the question, whether “yes” or “no,” on a drug conviction, almost always ended in financial aid approval. “The net effect was that more than 99 percent were eligible for aid, they were just confused by the question,” Collie said.

The application form for the 2001-2002 academic year specifically emphasizes that the question must be answered. Fewer than 100 PSU applicants have failed to answer the question so far. This compares favorably with the approximately 250 who failed to answer for the 2000-2001 academic year. The question last year bore no special note of emphasis.

Also, an analysis showed that many students didn’t understand the question or simply forgot to complete it. A government study recommended the question be made more straightforward to reduce confusion.

The question for 2001-2002 says twice, once in bold face type and once in a special box, that the question must be answered. The question, number 35 in the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application, reads:

“Do not leave this question blank. Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs? If you have, answer ‘Yes,’ complete and submit this application, and we will send you a worksheet in the mail for you to determine if your conviction affects your eligibility for aid.”

Attention became focused on the issue this spring when an organization, the Coalition for HEA Reform, issued a press release with the headline “Experts Predict 60,000 Students Will Lose Financial Aid Due to Drug Convictions.” However, details of the press release make a less dramatic claim. David Borden, executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network, is quoted as saying, “As many as 60,000 students could have their aid cut . . .” Actual figures in the press release show a worst case scenario presently stands at 28.5 thousand applicants who have failed to answer the question and thus “seriously risk losing their full year financial aid eligibility,” in Borden’s words.

Whatever the figures, Collie made it plain he thinks such a question does not belong on the application

“To me, the issue is this. Does it make sense on a national level to have drug enforcement policy mix with higher education? I don’t think it does.”

One of the dangers he said, is that there could be an expansion of federal meddling in the financial aid process. He said a congressman has introduced a bill to include a question on child support.

“To me, the whole issue is, if you’re poor and trying to get a job and an education will help you get one, then maybe you can pay child support,” Collie said.

Still, the specter of 60,000 without aid was enough to inspire The Oregonian to weigh in on the question, via a column by Robert Landauer July 3. His column put the numbers in calmer perspective. Last year, he wrote, out of nearly 10 million applicants, 9,114 lost all or part of their grants, loans and work assistance because of the law.

Landauer called for repeal of the 1998 law. His column urged Oregon First District Congressman David Wu to work for repeal. Wu serves on the relevant Education and Workforce Committee.

Collie viewed the law as contradictory. He pointed out a person can commit a violent crime which results in prison time, do the time, get out of prison, get a job and get financial aid.

The drug conviction question for the 2001-2002 academic year results in action more restrictive than last year’s handling. Last year, if there was a question at the national level, it was kicked back to the school to work out. This year the procedure can become more burdensome. If the student answers either “yes” or “no,” the continuing action is handled by the federal aid processor.

If the question is left blank, the application stops dead. The government then sends a letter of instruction for the student to complete and return. This inevitably results in more bureaucratic delay.

The original law, Section 484 of the Higher Education Act, at first reading seems harsher than it works out in practice.

The act originally calls for one year of ineligibility for the first possession offense, two years for a second offense and indefinite for a third offence. For sale of a controlled substance, first offense is two years, second offense is indefinite suspension.

However, the law contains a provision which can restore eligibility if the student completes a drug rehabilitation program and submits to two unannounced drug tests.

Both the coalition press release and the Landauer column object that the penalties fall heaviest on minorities because they make up a disproportionate number of drug convictions.

Collie seemed more worried about the idea of mixing law enforcement with higher education. He pointed out that a congressman could point to Portland State and say 100 cases is not much. But if the national potential should rise to 60,000, that represents a critical concern, in Collie’s view.

Copyright The Vanguard