Publication Date: March 2001
DCL ID: GEN-01-05
Award Year: 2001-2002
Change in 2001-2002 FAFSA processing for non-responses to the "Drug Conviction" question (Question 35).
2001-2002 Action Letter # 8
Summary: Change in 2001-2002 FAFSA processing for non-responses to the "Drug Conviction" question (Question 35).
This year, almost all FAFSA applicants are answering the new drug question—99.6%, in fact. Last year’s answer rate was dramatically lower because students were confused about how to answer and whether it applied to them, so for the 2000-2001 processing cycle, we chose not to withhold aid. By contrast, the early indication is that the changes to the drug conviction question on the 2001-2002 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) have eliminated the confusion applicants experienced last year. As a result, we are amending the processing procedure that was adopted last year and re-establishing the use of a "C" code to cause applicants to respond to Question 35.
New Process for 2001-2002:
Beginning March 26, 2001, when an applicant leaves the Drug Conviction question (Question 35) blank, the resulting SAR and ISIR will be marked with a ‘C’ code indicating that the applicant cannot be paid federal student aid. Your school must receive a revised ISIR that shows a response to Question 35 of ‘1’ or ‘2’ before disbursing any SFA funds. Starting March 29, 2001, SFA will reprocess the ISIRs for those students who left the question blank prior to implementing this processing change.
As you know, a student convicted of the sale or possession of illegal drugs may be ineligible for federal student aid, depending on when the conviction occurred. Since this statutory provision was first effective for the 2000-2001 award year, the 2000-2001 Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) included a Drug Conviction question (Question 28). On the 2001-2002 FAFSA, the Drug Conviction question has been repositioned for greater prominence and reworded as Question 35.
History: 2000 – 2001 Processing
Originally an applicant who left the FAFSA drug question blank could not receive Title IV aid until the question was properly answered. We used our long-standing ‘C’ code process to inform schools of this as well as providing a message on the SAR telling the applicant that they could not receive federal aid until they responded to the question.
After the first several weeks of the 2000-2001 processing year (which began in January 2000) we found that almost 20% of applicants had left Question 28 blank. Follow-up research showed that, in most instances, it was left blank either because the student did not understand the question or thought that since they did not have a drug conviction they did not need to respond. Over the full processing year, a non-response rate of 20% would have resulted in more than 1.5 million students initially being denied eligibility.
At that time we felt that this number of non-responses was too high and that almost all of them would ultimately become eligible. Thus, we announced on February 24, 2000 that, until we could make changes to the presentation of the question on the FAFSA, we would modify processing for the remainder of 2000-2001. From March 6, 2000 we stopped treating them as ‘C’ code issues. Instead those applicants were told, by a comment of the SAR, that if they did have a drug conviction they must properly respond to the question that they had left blank.
For the 2001-2002 processing year, we designed surveys and hosted focus groups of FAAs and students in order to find ways to minimize the number of non-responses to the drug question. What resulted was a change in the placement of the question on the form (now Question 35) as well as revised wording and instructions. While we believed that these changes would drastically reduce the number of non-responses, we decided to maintain the same treatment -- no ‘C’ code and strong message to the student -- until we were sure. I am happy to report that during the first weeks of 2001-2002 FAFSA processing, the non-response rate is now down to less than one-half of one percent. We believe that the relatively small number of non-responses means that together we can manage this important student eligibility issue.
Therefore, beginning with FAFSAs processed on March 26, 2001, any application received with Question 35 left blank will be flagged with the ‘C’ code informing schools that they cannot pay Title IV aid until the question has been answered properly by the applicant. The SAR will include a message to the student telling them that they must respond to the question in order to be considered for federal student aid. In addition, a Drug Conviction Worksheet will continue to be enclosed with the SAR in order to help the student answer the question. Please refer to the web page for complete instructions. Accesswww.fafsa.ed.gov and click on the "Entering FAFSA" tab. Click on the link titled "Question 28/35 Worksheet", and select the 2001-2002 award year.
We will be re-processing the very small number of 2001-2002 non-response FAFSA transactions that had been processed prior to the March 26, 2001 change. We expect this number to be less than 12,000 nationwide. Revised ISIRs for those transactions will be placed in schools’ electronic mailboxes on or about March 29, 2001.
The revised Comment 53 text will read as follows: "You left Item 35 blank. Your failure to provide an answer to this question makes you ineligible to receive Title IV aid. Either indicate that you have never been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs or use the enclosed worksheet to determine your answer to this question. In any case, you can correct this item by calling 1-800-4FED-AID (1-800-433-3243) or by going towww.fafsa.ed.gov. You can also use your SAR. Please understand that a drug conviction does not necessarily disqualify you from receiving student aid."
I want to thank you for your continued cooperation as we implement the Drug Conviction eligibility requirement of the law. If you have questions, please contact our SFA Customer Service Call Center. Staff is available Monday through Friday between the hours of 9:00 AM and 5:00 PM (Eastern Time) at 1-800-433-7327. After hours, calls will be accepted by an automated voice response system. Callers leaving their name and phone number will receive a return call the next business day. You may FAX an inquiry to the Customer Service Call Center at (202) 260-4199, or E-mail one to firstname.lastname@example.org. Students with questions should contact 1-800-4FEDAID.
Chief Operating Officer
Student Financial Assistance
U.S. Department of Education