Financial aid at risk

Some Portland State students may not be able to receive financial aid because of one line on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA).

Student governments across the United States are calling for a repeal of legislation that asks the question: “Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?”

Every student applying for federal financial aid – which includes Pell Grants, Perkins Loans and work-study programs – must fill out the FAFSA and answer a wealth of questions about their personal and financial history. A question about possessing or selling illegal drugs was added after the passage of legislation in 1998, and has appeared on the 1999-2000 and 2000-2001 FAFSA forms.Controversy exists over whether receiving need-based aid should be based on drug-related issues.

In 1998, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) carried through Congress an amendment to the Higher Education Act (HEA) that delays or denies all federal financial aid for any drug offense. The Higher Education Act was passed in 1965 to authorize and oversee distribution of federal financial aid.

Basically, the amendment lays out a time period for students convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs during which they are ineligible to receive federal financial aid. For possessing an “illegal substance,” a student is ineligible to receive federal aid for one year with one offense, two years for two offenses and indefinitely for three or more. For selling a “controlled substance,” the waiting period is two years for a first offense and indefinitely for two or more. If a student undergoes an accepted rehabilitation program, they become re-eligible.

Two national groups are staging nationwide efforts to repeal the 1998 amendment on the grounds that it is unnecessary and discriminatory. Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP – and Raise Your Voice ( are both aggressively targeting campuses across the United States to raise support for a repeal.

The groups are backing House Resolution 786, introduced in February 2001, which would repeal the HEA drug provision. The bill is backed by 29 members of the House of Representatives and 50 student governments across the United States, including PSU’s.

Data from the Raise Your Voice Web site claims that out of nearly 4.7 million financial aid applications processed for the 2001-02 school year, almost 34,000 responded “yes” to the drug question and just under 11,000 refused to answer it. Either action requires the applying student to fill out a form clarifying whether or not they are eligible for federal financial aid. If the student neglects to fill out the form or answers with incriminating answers, they risk delaying or losing completely all financial aid eligibility for a full year.

Both SSDP and Raise Your Voice argue that “the HEA drug provision deals a double blow to minorities by thrusting the preexisting racial bias in drug convictions on to higher education.” According to a press release by the Coalition for HEA Reform, African-Americans make up 13 percent of illegal drug users and 55 percent of those convicted of drug offenses. The groups argue that the question discriminates against working families, punishes students twice for the same crime and will not solve the nation’s drug problem.

“Supporters of HEA reform believe education is the best ‘Anti-Drug’ initiative available to the government,” stated Shawn Heller, national director for SSDP, in a press release.

Sam Collie, director of the office of student financial aid at PSU, supports removing the question from the FAFSA. “It’s a confusing question, and even if students leave it unanswered we have to follow up with them. It delays the whole process,” he said.

Data from last year’s FAFSA indicated that of the over 17,000 students who turned in an application at PSU, 39 were sent a follow-up form to clarify the drug offense question. So far this year over 13,000 applications have been processed, and already 99 students have been sent follow-up forms. However, Collie points out that students can bypass PSU by dealing directly with the FAFSA processor to resolve problems, so they have no idea how many students are actually affected.

Collie also questioned the appropriateness of tying financial aid to past drug-related convictions. “On a policy level the question remains: Is it good public policy to tie the eligibility of financial aid for students attending post-secondary institutions to U.S. domestic anti-drug policy?”