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Exactly how do drug convictions affect student loan eligibility?

If you're in college (or if your child is), you need to know that being convicted of even a small amount of marijuana could have serious, long-term consequences. For one thing, a drug conviction could seriously hamper your future prospects for employment, housing, professional licensure -- even volunteer opportunities. More immediately, you could lose your eligibility for federal financial aid.

Could I immediately lose access to financial aid forever if I get caught with a joint?

Absolutely not. Here are some important things to know about drugs and student loan eligibility from the U.S. Department of Education's Office of National Drug Control Policy:

  • Only convictions can hurt your federal student aid eligibility -- arrests don't count.
  • To affect your eligibility, the conviction must occur while you were receiving federal financial aid -- past convictions don't count.
  • The law applies to federal student aid; not necessarily financial aid through states, foundations or private parties. Federal student aid means loans, grants, and work-study through Title IV of the Higher Education Opportunity Act, such as:
    • Perkins loans
    • Direct loans
    • Federal Family Education Loans
    • Pell grants
    • SMART grants
    • Academic Competitiveness program grants
    • Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity program grants
  • What happens is that qualifying drug convictions create a period of ineligibility for federal student aid. If it does, the length of the ineligibility period depends on whether this was your first offense and if you were convicted of drug possession or drug sales/distribution.
    • For a first-time drug possession conviction, the ineligibility period lasts for a year from the date of conviction.
    • For a second possession conviction or a first-time conviction for sales, the ineligibility period is two years.
    • For a third possession conviction, a second drug sales conviction or any subsequent drug conviction, the period of ineligibility is indefinite.
  • If this happens, there are still options. For example, completing certain alternative sentencing programs results in your conviction being set aside, and this gets rid of the eligibility period. Also, successful completion of a qualifying drug rehabilitation program and passing two unannounced drug tests can shorten the ineligibility period -- even indefinite.

Criminal issues during college can be more serious than they first appear. If you've been arrested or are facing a school disciplinary action over alleged drug use, your best bet is to talk to a lawyer right away.

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