Don't let your past haunt you. A drug conviction will not stand in your way if you want to go to school and need help paying for it – even when it comes to a Pell Grant. Many students, not just those with felony drug convictions, have unusual or special circumstances that call for a few extra steps to qualify for financial aid. How you go about qualifying for financial aid will depend on whether this is your first or subsequent felony drug conviction, and whether you were receiving financial aid at the time of the conviction.
Where to Disclose Conviction
If you are thinking about going to college you need to complete the Federal Application for Federal Student Aid. Schools use this application to determine a student's eligibility for financial aid. Question No. 23 on the FAFSA form asks about your history of federal or state drug conviction and is where you can get disqualified for federal student aid. Answering the question positively or leaving it blank will remind you to get a worksheet with the Student Aid Report that will double-check your answer to the question. The worksheet includes instructions for changing the answer based on individual circumstances -- in case your conviction doesn't count for this question.
Effect on Eligibility
You are not automatically barred from receiving the Pell Grant if you have a drug conviction. Your eligibility will only be affected if you were receiving federal financial aid at the time the incident for which you were convicted occurred. Even if you are deemed ineligible for federal student aid under these circumstances, your ineligibility is usually only temporary. For a first offense, the period of ineligibility is one year from the date of conviction for possession of illegal drugs and two years from the date of conviction for the sale of illegal drugs. For a second offense, the period of ineligibility is two years from the date of conviction for possession of illegal drugs and indefinite for the sale of illegal drugs. For a third offense of possession of illegal drugs, the period of ineligibility is indefinite.
You can regain eligibility sooner by successfully completing a qualified rehabilitation program that includes at least two random drug tests and one of the following criteria: the program is eligible to receive funds from a government program or government licensed insurance company or the program is administered by a government entity or by a government affiliated medical facility. Students who regain eligibility can be awarded federal aid for the current semester, even if it has already started.
Effect on Financial Aid
Keep in mind that if you are disqualified for federal student aid because of a drug conviction, you are not necessarily disqualified from receiving other forms of student aid -- including state or school-based aid. So complete the FAFSA even if you suspect you do not qualify for a Pell Grant or other federal aid. Be aware that even though drug convictions are self-certified on the FAFSA form, the Anti Drug Abuse Act of 1988 requires that your application be checked against the central processing system that maintains records of drug convictions. So don't try to lie -- it won't work.
Sara Mahuron specializes in adult/higher education, parenting, budget travel and personal finance. She earned an M.S. in adult/organizational learning and leadership, as well as an Ed.S. in educational leadership, both from the University of Idaho. Mahuron also holds a B.S. in psychology and a B.A. in international studies-business and economics.