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If You Have a Criminal Record...
Represent staff

Being convicted of a crime can hurt your chances of getting into some colleges, finding on-campus housing, and even—in some cases—receiving financial aid.

“A broad array of convictions is viewed as negative factors in the context of admissions decision-making, including drug and alcohol convictions, misdemeanor convictions, and youthful offender adjudications,” according to Reconsidered: The Use of Criminal History Records in College Admissions a 2010 report by the Center for Community Alternatives. Researchers surveyed 273 colleges and found that 64% of them included a question about criminal history on their college applications.

However, having a record doesn’t mean your application automatically goes in the reject pile. It’s more likely that admitting you have a record will result in additional screening, which means you might be asked to explain what happened to an admissions officer. (Not all schools are so nosy: Public universities and community colleges are less likely to ask about your criminal history than private schools.)

“There are a lot of good schools out there that don’t screen,” said Patricia Warth, Co-Director of Justice Strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, “so don’t let this deter you.” If you do come across a question about your criminal history, she recommends that students be honest and try to convey to the school that “this is something you’ve learned from and that education is a critical part of your ability to move forward in a positive direction.”

Once you’re accepted, there may be additional hurdles: Some colleges may not allow you to live on campus if you have even a misdemeanor. The rules vary depending on the college, so call your prospective school’s housing office to ask about its policy.

While you’re enrolled in college, it’s more important than ever to stick to the straight and narrow because a drug offense can screw up your financial aid.

Question 23 of the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) asks: “Have you been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while you were receiving federal student aid (grants, loans, and/or work-study)?”

If the answer is yes, your eligibility for financial aid could be suspended. But read the question carefully. “The question is really specific: have you been convicted while receiving financial aid? If you were convicted under any other circumstance, it shouldn’t matter,” says Gabriel Smiley, an educational counselor at OPTIONS.

They’re not asking about drug convictions that happened before you started college or even over the summer when you weren’t taking classes. Any convictions that occurred while you were a juvenile, or that are no longer on your record, don’t count, either.

A drug possession conviction that occurs while you’re receiving financial aid money results in a one-year suspension of your federal loans and grants. However, if you rack up multiple drug convictions for possession or dealing while in college, you may not be able to receive federal financial aid ever again. (If that happens, the only way to regain eligibility is to attend a drug rehab program.)

If you have specific questions about the law, call the Federal Student Aid Information Center at 1-800-4-FED-AID (1-800-433-3243).

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