Drug charges and school finances do not mix. If you've been convicted of a drug felony and were hoping to get help paying for college, the federal government is not inclined to help you. Every year, scores of students applying for federal student aid are rejected because of a drug conviction. Even a misdemeanor drug charge can affect your eligibility for financial aid. In 1998, Congress amended the Higher Education Act (HEA) to bar some students from receiving aid due to past drug convictions. However, whether your felony prevents you from receiving a Pell Grant depends on your individual case.
Pell Grants for Ex Felons
Pell Grants for ex felons are more challenging to obtain than those for students who don't have a criminal record, but they aren't impossible either. To apply for a Pell Grant, you must fill out a Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). On the FAFSA, question 23 asks if you have ever been convicted of a drug-related offense. A FASFA felony admission does not lead to immediate disqualification. If you answer yes or leave the question blank, the Department of Education will send you a worksheet to fill out, through which you present the details of the felony. The worksheet will be forwarded to your school where a financial aid officer will review your case individually.
Ineligibility Periods for Drug Convictions
The 1998 HEA amendment sets ineligibility periods for receiving federal financial aid. Drug convictions only affect eligibility for financial aid if the offense was committed while you were enrolled and receiving aid. According to the amendment, if you were convicted of drug possession, a first offense carries one year of ineligibility, a second offense means two years and a third offense can permanently disqualify you. If you were convicted of selling drugs, a first offense carries a two-year ineligibility period and a second offense can bar you completely. While multiple felonies may permanently disqualify you from receiving federal student aid, a single drug-related felony several years ago should not prevent you from receiving a Pell Grant.
Felonies and Misdemeanors
Misdemeanor drug charges have the same effect on financial aid as felony drug charges. The HEA amendment does not differentiate between drug convictions. If you were convicted of a drug-related felony, you are subject to the same ineligibility periods and other rules as another student convicted of a misdemeanor. The HEA has been criticized for this lack of distinction and also for the singling out of drug offenses as opposed to other criminal offenses of which students may have been convicted.
Rehabilitation and Advisors
Students can regain eligibility if they complete a rehabilitation program that includes random drug testing. Talk to your advisor about options before enrolling in a program, as some campuses have drug monitoring or treatment programs with random testing that may count as rehabilitation programs. Furthermore, call your school and ask to meet with a financial aid advisor to discuss your situation. Advisors can soften the effects of the amendments, depending on your individual circumstances.
Calla Hummel is a doctoral student studying contraband in international political economy. She supplements her student stipend by writing about personal finance and working as a consultant, as well as hoping that her investments will pan out.