If you are a student on federal aid, watch out: there is a trick question on the FAFSA that can potentially derail your Yale career.
On the Free Application for Financial Student Aid 2001-2002 form, question 35 asks, “Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?”
Answer no, and you’re set.
Answer yes or leave the circle blank, and you might be unable to attend Yale this coming fall.
In the past, an affirmative or blank answer would not necessarily disqualify a student from receiving federal financial aid. With the passage of amendments to the 1998 Reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, or HEA, both responses to the question now bar the student from receiving any federal aid.
Ten million students across the nation apply for federal aid annually. Last year, 279,000 applicants who left the answer blank still had their applications processed, and the 9,114 who answered affirmatively were denied federal aid. Rules have tightened even more this year: all those who leave question 35 blank will not have their application processed at all.
The bill’s alleged intention is to punish college students convicted of a state or federal drug crime while receiving federal aid. The Bush administration’s interpretation of this HEA provision, however, ignores several disturbing inequities inherent in this policy.
The current approach obstructs access to education and is therefore counterproductive because it yokes together two unrelated programs — financial aid and drug-use reduction, each designated for valid but separate purposes — to fix one problem.
This jumble raises a host of problems. The policy ignores the seriousness of drug offenses; punishes drug offenders twice for the same crime by jeopardizing higher education on top of the customary legal penalties offenders face; adopts retroactive measures by making the provision an ex post facto law (in fact, students barred from receiving aid can regain eligibility only by completing a federally approved drug rehabilitation program even if they are not addicted to drugs); disregards convictions of other crimes such as murder or rape; ignores colleges’ major drug problems of alcohol abuse and underage drinking, implying that getting a little friendly with Mary Jane is a greater threat to society than chatting with Jack Daniels; and disagrees with objectives of established drug abuse treatment programs.
More strikingly, piggybacking financial aid penalties on convictions already known to disproportionately penalize people based on socioeconomic status simply institutionalizes further discrimination. Ironically, low-income families will be disproportionately harmed by a bill intended to improve their access to education.
What does Yale President Richard Levin have to say? He has demonstrated that getting this provision changed is not a priority. Thus far, the University does not have a defined stance, particularly because Levin feels the discussion is hypothetical since such a case has not yet been reported. He described certain committees working on this issue, yet these committees are belated in their discussions, and unless the administration is held more accountable, little can be done to combat this injustice. He has admitted that the HEA amendment is a strange way to sanction financial aid, but he has also stated that Yale needs to comply with federal law so that federal funding will not be withheld from the University.
In the meantime, if a Yale student on financial aid is caught with marijuana by school police, Levin anticipates minimal financial repercussions, if any, for the student. However, if city police are involved, Levin speculates that the school would temporarily subsidize the student for subsequently denied federal funds only with the expectation of being eventually reimbursed by the government. Levin has decided to postpone the determination of an official response until the situation actually arises.
Monday night, Teresa Younger, head of the Connecticut Civil Liberties Union, told students that Connecticut’s biggest threat to civil liberties is the silence of the community. The HEA amendment is not receiving the attention it merits because its victims have not been vocal and not enough potential victims are aware of the policy. Thinking nationally, acting locally, schools need to take a stand and publicize it, so that reform bill H.R. 786 — which would amend the HEA act — will not sit idly in the House committee for another year. Changing this policy will be difficult, but adhering to its current standards can prematurely end a student’s college years.
Sharon Hwang is a sophomore in Berkeley College. She is a member of the Yale chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union.