Students debate FAFSA drug question

Students applying for financial aid this year will be denied federal money if they have been convicted of drug crimes. While the drug question added to applications in July has not affected many GW students, some say it is an unfair rule.

Question 28 of the 104-question 2000-01 FAFSA asks if the aid applicant has ever been convicted of selling or possessing illegal drugs.

The question is required by an amendment to the 1998 Higher Education Act passed in July, disqualifying applicants who have been convicted of drug offenses. The new law has been criticized by Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a national group that calls the provision unfair and discriminatory.

These people are not bad people, said Sam McCree, president of the GW chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. There’s no reason they should be treated that way.

Stephanie Babyak, spokesperson for the Department of Education, said 10 million students apply for federal aid each year. As of Oct. 15, 8.6 million students applied for aid this year. But as a consequence of the new law, 1,311 of those students have been declared ineligible for aid and 5,617 must complete a waiting period before they can receive federal loans. The waiting period – which a student can determine on the FAFSA Question 28 Worksheet available online – depends on the number and nature of a student’s drug convictions.

There’s not widespread students going without aid, McCree said. The number it affects is a specific number of honest, low-income groups.

Only adult convictions in a federal or state court are counted against a student. Convictions before a student turns 18 cannot be counted against them.

Students who have been convicted must have completed an acceptable drug rehabilitation program since their last conviction to be considered for aid, according to the FAFSA application.

There is no other question on the FAFSA application that asks about a student’s criminal record, McCree said.

You could commit a murder and still get aid, he said.

The drug question hurts the people who truly need financial aid, McCree said.

It’s often a racist system, he said.

McCree said the law has a negative impact on education because it affects only people in lower financial brackets who need to apply for aid to attend college. Students from high-income families can bypass the law if they are able to independently pay for college, he said.

Question 28 has yet to cause any problems for this year’s freshman class at GW.

I don’t know of anyone affected, said Dan Small, GW director of Student Financial Assistance.

Small said applicants were confused about the purpose of the question.

The question’s goal is to determine those students who have been convicted of drug charges, but some may have interpreted it as asking if they had ever used illegal drugs or had ever been caught doing so, Small said.

Many students nationwide have ignored the FAFSA drug-conviction question, claiming they either did not understand it or felt they were not obligated to answer it, according to the Department of Education.

We’re able to still process and award aid, Small said. Students who did not answer the question are receiving aid but risk losing it in the future, Small said.

Babyak said the drug question has been reworded for next year’s FAFSA, reminding students that the question is mandatory and cannot be left blank. Small said students who leave the question blank on next year’s form will be denied aid until the question is answered.

In order for us to continue dispersing funds, they have to answer the question, he said.

Despite the nature of the question, there is no mandate in the current law that requires background checks for students who have applied for aid, Babyak said.

It’s on an honors system, Small said.

SSDP, which has chapters at 28 universities nationwide, is campaigning to repeal this summer’s amendment to the Higher Education Act.

There are some parts (of the Act) that really do good; it’s trying to help more students get into college, McCree said. It just picks the wrong groups of people to (abuse).

McCree said few GW students have protested the law, but more will object once they are affected by the amendment.

Students are uninformed about (the law), McCree said. The only people who know about it are (this year’s) freshman.

McCree said the law comes from the national War on Drugs, which he said is ineffective.

A lot of the Drug War is just for show, he said. A lot of things put into action look good on paper.

McCree said America’s drug policy is hypocritical.

If the two presidential candidates used drugs, how can you say that drugs are wrong?

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