BY DEBBY COREY, University of Tennessee - Chattanooga, Educational Opportunity Center
As a grant program that targets low income, first generation residents interested in either continuing, or attending a postsecondary school for the first time, our staff often works with teens and adults who have a criminal record. Many ex-offenders assume they are not eligible for federal student aid and that is simply not true.
Only a tiny percentage of felons may have to delay college plans to meet federal guidelines. Sadly, many agencies that work with ex-offenders are under the impression that a convicted felon is not eligible to receive federal financial aid simply because they are not aware of the current regulations. Unknowingly, they discourage ex-offenders from attending college and improving their lives and careers through education.
In the worst case scenario, an ex-offender would have to wait a year for possession or two years for the sale of illegal drugs. Among other eligibility requirements, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, FAFSA, states: “If you have been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid (such as grants, loans, or work-study), you must complete the Student Aid Eligibility Worksheet to determine if you are Eligible for aid or Partially Eligible for aid.” The key phrase in the paragraph is "...convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred WHILE you were receiving federal student aid…" For most ex-offenders, this means their financial aid is processed and awarded in the same way as the general public; by completing the FAFSA. Unless they answer yes to the above statement, their eligibility is based on income, family size, and various other factors, not their conviction history. Additionally, even if students answer yes to the question above, they may still be able to immediately receive federal student aid by completing the Student Aid Eligibility Worksheet where they will answer a series of questions to determine eligibility.
Beyond federal financial aid, there is another barrier to consider: fields that require licensing. Many fields, especially the medical field, require licensing after completing the educational requirements. State licensing procedures may bar felons from completing the process. Ex-offenders are encouraged to research their major before enrolling to see if there are barriers that could prevent them from using their degree after graduation.
Other obstacles ex-offenders may encounter include getting a high school diploma or GED, transportation and housing issues. Researching local programs such as GED programs, United Way, halfway houses, and transitional living can often reveal available temporary assistance to help overcome these barriers.
The Educational Opportunity Center in Chattanooga, TN, funded by U.S. Department of Education and a 2012 TCASN Model Program Grant winner, assists over 1,000 participants each year by helping them get their GED/High School diploma, choosing a college, choosing a major, and assisting with the completion of all admission and financial aid forms.