Oregon ranks second in financial aid denial for drugs

Oregon ranked second highest out of the 50 states among financial aid applicants denied because they responded yes to a conviction of selling or possessing drugs.

On April 12, the U.S. Department of Education released the state-by-state breakdown of the number of federal financial aid applicants denied either part of or all of their financial aid award. In 2005, when the drug-conviction amendment came up for reconsideration, it was modified to deny aid only to those students convicted of drug sales or possession while in college. Past convictions will no longer be held against financial aid applicants.

Between August 2000 and August 2005, the years during which the drug-conviction penalty was in effect, 3,637 applicants for federal financial aid in Oregon were denied financial aid. A total of 997,710 Oregonians applied for federal financial aid, meaning that 0.36 percent of Oregon applicants lost aid because of drug convictions.

All told, nearly 190,000 students, or 0.25 percent of federal financial aid applicants from U.S. states and territories, lost aid because of their responses to the drug question while the drug-conviction policy was in effect.

California and Washington also ranked high among the 50 states, with the third and fourth highest drug-related aid denial rates. Indiana had the highest percentage of applicants denied, 0.50 percent, of any state.

Although Portland State is the largest university in the state that ranked second for drug-related aid denials, it is difficult to gauge the extent to which Portland State students have been affected by the law. The Office of Institutional Planning and Research does measure the number of students denied federal financial aid, but does not track the reasons for each denial and could not report on how many Portland State students had lost aid because of drug convictions.

“I’m not aware of many people here being affected,” said Kenneth McGhee of the financial aid office. “Two or three years ago, one person did come in concerned about the drug question, but that person ended up being eligible for aid. Some people fill out the form and get denied, so they either don’t go, or they self-pay, but they don’t ask us directly. People don’t usually show up [at the financial aid office] with questions about the drug issue.”

“A lot of people, myself included, feel that you shouldn’t hold people’s pasts against them,” McGhee said.

The Department of Education released the numbers after legal wrangling with the nonprofit group Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), represented by Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy organization. In 2004, SSDP filed a Freedom of Information Act request for the figures, which the department refused on the grounds that the information would serve the commercial interests of those who would benefit from the legalization of drugs. The department attempted to charge SSDP a fee of $4,000 for the data, but backed down in order to avoid a court battle when SSDP sued.

The drug-conviction financial aid penalty came into being as a 1998 House amendment to the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which was first enacted in 1965 to provide federal financial aid for college students. The amendment denied federal financial aid to anyone who had ever been convicted of possessing or selling drugs.

During the 2000-01 school year, the first year the drug-conviction question appeared on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), the Clinton administration approved aid for the nearly 300,000 applicants who did not answer the question.

The following year, however, the Bush administration reversed this policy, making students who did not answer the question subject to the same follow-up questionnaire and possible denial as those who answered yes.

The Department of Education has no way of verifying most students’ responses to the FAFSA drug question. The only applicants whose records they can crosscheck are those with federal arrest records, which make up a very small percentage of total drug convictions in the United States.

The numbers released by the Department of Education last Wednesday reflect the percentage of applicants in Oregon and other states who were denied aid because they admitted to having drug convictions on the FAFSA, not the actual percentage of applicants who had drug convictions in their past.