Wednesday, May 03, 2006

The value of truthiness

The Oregon Daily Emerald at the University of Oregon printed a comprehensive article on the the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty and SSDP's state-by-state report today.

The piece explores whether or not the government is able to tell when students are hiding their drug convictions when filling out the FAFSA. At least one student at UOregon got away with it.

The police caught him once with a bag of marijuana. They caught him again with a pipe.

The University student, who asked to remain anonymous, said his drug convictions have forced him to lie on his Free Application for Federal Student Aid form for each of the past four years because otherwise he would lose the financial aid that he depends on to pay his entire tuition.

Students who check yes to the FAFSA’s question 31, which asks “Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?” are denied financial aid.

“If I was gonna answer ‘yes’ to that question, I wouldn’t even be filling out the FAFSA,” he said. “If it wasn’t for financial aid, I wouldn’t be a student.”

Had the Oregon student told the truth on his FAFSA, he would have become one of thousands of students who have been denied financial aid in Oregon, according to a recent report.

A spokeswoman for the Department of Education says that students should tell the truth on the FAFSA, especially since failing to do so is a crime.
Smith said lying on the FAFSA is “punishable by a significant fine.”

“It is to a student’s benefit to provide adequate information,” Smith said.

“We perform spot checks on different questions in the FAFSA,” Smith said, but it “would be logistically prohibitive to investigate every student who applies to FAFSA.”

But she tactfully avoids saying whether or not the government spot checks answers to the drug conviction question. In reality, there is almost certainly no way the Department of Education can determine if students are being forthright about their criminal histories. If there were, she would have been more direct in saying that there is some sort of criminal database that the agency matches up FAFSA answers with.

Lying on the FAFSA is a federal crime punishable by jail time, a fine of $20,000, or both. Of course, SSDP can not and does not encourage students to commit crimes. It is, however, interesting to note that the government probably has no way to catch people who hide their drug convictions. For many students, doing so is the only hope of staying in school.

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