The Daily Tar Heel

Serving the students and the University community since 1893

Wednesday February 1st

A look into UNC's financial aid and drug conviction policy

<p>A peer counselor at the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid gives financial advice to an incoming transfer student. Students with work study jobs are eligible for SNAP benefits, but few UNC students use the program.&nbsp;</p>
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A peer counselor at the Office of Scholarships and Student Aid gives financial advice to an incoming transfer student. Students with work study jobs are eligible for SNAP benefits, but few UNC students use the program. 

On Sept. 17, the University outlined the effects of a drug conviction on federal financial aid eligibility in an email: with a single conviction, aid is revoked.

The University is required by federal law to outline the policy to all enrolled students annually. 

The first conviction of possession of a controlled substance will result in financial aid ineligibility for one year, while a second offense carries a two-year suspension. The first conviction of the sale of a controlled substance results in a two-year suspension. 

The University is subject to the policy by a 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1965 (HEA98) that removes eligibility for federal grant money following a drug conviction. Question 23 of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid asks whether the student has been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while receiving federal student aid.

FAFSA also questions a student's history of forcible or non-forcible sexual offenses and if the student has been involuntary committed to a mental health facility.

Other criminal convictions do not carry the same penalties with regards to financial aid eligibility. According to the FAFSA website, incarcerated recipients that have lost their eligibility will have most eligibility limitations removed upon release. 

Critics of the amendment argue that it violates the Fifth Amendment's provision against double jeopardy by subjecting students to multiple rounds of punishment stemming from a single conviction. Students who lost aid can regain eligibility early by successfully completing an approved drug rehabilitation program or or by passing two unannounced drug tests. 

The Supreme Court, however, upheld the policy in 2008 in Students for Sensible Drug Policy Found v. Spellings. The defendent, Margaret Spellings, is the former U.S. Secretary of Education and current president of the UNC System.

However, a 2013 study by Michael Lovenheim and Emily Owens found no evidence that the law had a deterrent effect on drug offenses. Additionally, the law may have had an inverse effect in barring at-risk students from attending college. 

Lovenheim and Owens concluded that by restricting access to financial aid, HEA98 may have inadvertently harmed the long-run life outcomes of these at-risk students. Students in the study were 60 percent more likely to be convicted of another drug crime in the three years after high school graduation if subjected to the HEA98 financial aid restrictions.

Because FAFSA does not collect data on the demographics of applicants, monitoring the effects of the policy on minority students is difficult to quantify. Still, some worry that the policy disproportionately affects minority students. 

Theodore Shaw, director of the UNC Center for Civil Rights, said that while the policy may not have had racial intent in its implementation, it still may affect students of color more than other groups. 

“It’s undeniable that within the United States the so-called war on drugs is prosecuted with disproportionate impact on African Americans, Latinos and people of color,” Shaw said. “Black people in the United States, contrary to what many people believe or refuse to believe, do not use drugs in higher proportions than white Americans.”

A 2007 study of 4,580 undergraduate students at a Midwestern research university found that 41.8 percent of white women and 43.3 percent of white men reported using illicit drugs in the past 12 months, compared with 24.9 percent of African-American women and 36.0 percent of African-American men. 

However, the Lovenheim and Owens study found that in a sample of felony defendants convicted in state courts in 2000, roughly 53 percent of drug offenders were Black and 83 percent were male.

Federal financial aid is vital for many students to maintaining their academic status at UNC. 

Senior Blaine Moss said that low-income, first generation students like himself may not have the resources to maintain their standing at the University if they lost federal financial aid eligibility. 

“There's definitely a ton of pressure not to mess up. Most people could make a minor mistake and get it expunged, but I don't have that option,” Moss said. “If I mess up then there aren't really any second chances.”


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