The 2003-04 Free Application for Federal Student Aid priority deadline is today. If a bill passes through Congress, honest students convicted of a drug-related offense who answered FAFSA question 35 accordingly may still be able to maintain their financial aid next year.

The Higher Education Act of 1965 provides government assistance to college students through financial aid. A 1998 amendment stipulates that students with drug convictions will no longer be eligible to receive financial aid. Bill HR 685, introduced Feb. 11 to the House by Representative Barney Frank (D-MA) and co-sponsored by Representative Stephen LaTourette (R-OH), will revoke the drug amendment if passed.

“HR 685 would get rid of the law that prohibits students with drug convictions from receiving financial aid from the government,” Ben Gaines, coordinator for the Coalition of HEA Reform (C.H.E.A.R.), said.

The government monitors which students are ineligible to receive financial aid because of drug convictions with FAFSA question 35, which asks if they have ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs. If the student answers yes, question 35 says to complete and submit the application and they will send the student a worksheet in the mail to determine if the students’ convictions will affect their eligibility.

Ron Andrade, the director of UCSB’s Financial Aid Office, said students not answering question 35 of the FASFA form is the biggest problem the drug provision has caused.

“Five UCSB students left question 35 blank for the 2002-03 year,” Andrade said. “A FASFA form is considered incomplete with even one question left blank, and therefore cannot be processed.”

Representative Mark Souder (R-Ind.) introduced the 1998 amendment that prohibits students with drug convictions from receiving government aid.

“He is against the bill which would repeal the drug provision. Enforcement of the provision has been difficult, but we believe it will remain,” Seth Becker, Souder’s spokesman, said. “The Clinton administration wrote the regulation to encompass all drug convictions, which was not the original intention of the bill.”

Souder’s 1998 amendment to the HEA has faced two major criticisms, the first being that the provision only affects those with drug-related convictions, but does nothing to students convicted of other offenses, including violent crimes. Secondly, the amendment only affects students who answer “yes” to question 35, but does not monitor the approximately 10 million students who answered no, some of whom do have drug convictions but lied about it on their FAFSA.

“Right now, no one is being denied financial aid on this campus,” Andrade said.

This is the third attempt to have the bill passed in Congress. If passed, it will be in effect for the 2003-04 school year. Gaines said getting the bill passed would be an “uphill battle” because several members of Congress are highly opposed to the bill.

Becker said the provision was meant to affect students convicted of drug use or selling drugs while on financial aid, rather than also including students who had convictions prior to applying for aid.

“We want to reach back and reshape the bill slightly to meet initial intentions, not remove it,” Becker said.

The most likely outcome for the bill is a compromise.

“We would reduce the number of students affected by the current drug provision in the act by only counting the drug offenses while a student is receiving financial aid. This would help out approximately 25,000 students to get their aid back,” Gaines said.

Andrade said he is in favor of any bill that lessens the severity of the drug provision.

“HR 685 was introduced in 1999 in response to a 1998 amendment to the HEA, which passed without much debate, and no one realized its implications until it was too late,” Gaines said. “The amendment was a former bill to reform HEA, but was never passed.”

For more information on C.H.E.A.R. and the bill HR 685 go to .

If you are filing a paper FAFSA, the Financial Aid Office suggests you obtain a certificate of mailing from the post office to guarantee you meet the priority-filing deadline.