Being convicted of a crime or being currently incarcerated doesn’t necessarily mean that you cannot receive federal financial aid in the form of grants and/or loans. Federal financial aid for incarcerated students is available, but there are many restrictions.
The federal government’s student aid website says it best: “Make sure you understand your status, and don’t assume you can’t get aid.” So, let’s figure out what your status is and what kind of financial aid you can receive as a result.
Financial Aid Eligibility For Currently Incarcerated Students
The key to whether or not you can receive federal financial aid as an incarcerated student depends on the kind of institution that you are currently incarcerated in.
If you are currently incarcerated in a federal or state institution, then your chances of receiving federal aid are slim. For starters, you are ineligible for federal Pell grants and federal student loans. Additionally, while you are eligible for Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grants (FSEOG) and federal work-study, there is a good chance that you may not receive those awards due to priority given to non-incarcerated students.
Bottom Line: You should take your chances and complete the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) for FSEOG grants and federal work-study. You never know—you may be one of the lucky few that gets the additional aid.
If you are currently incarcerated in a facility other than a federal or state institution, then your options expand. You may now be considered for the federal Pell grant, the FSEOG, and federal work-study; however, non-incarcerated students still take priority for FSEOG, and federal work-study might be logistically impossible. You also will not be eligible for federal student loans.
Bottom Line: Your incarceration does not limit you from receiving a federal Pell grant—which could mean thousands of dollars of financial aid.
I have more good news: you may be eligible for more federal financial aid once you are released, although your eligibility would still be limited if you were incarcerated for a drug-related offense or if you are subject to an involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense. For the latter, you would not be eligible for a Pell grant.
Financial Aid Eligibility For Students With Drug Convictions
Question 23C on the FAFSA asks you whether you were convicted of a drug offense while you were receiving federal student aid. The reason for this question is because drug convictions only count against you if you committed the offense while receiving federal financial aid (that is, unless you were convicted for something more severe like drug trafficking and had your federal benefits denied). If you answer yes to this question, you will be provided a drug eligibility worksheet to determine your eligibility for federal financial aid.
If the conviction occurred while you were receiving benefits, you’ll have a waiting period of anywhere from 1 year to 2 years (depending on the number of offenses) before you can receive federal student aid again. You can regain your eligibility earlier by successfully completing an approved drug rehabilitation program or by passing two unannounced drug tests.
Bottom Line: If you were convicted of a drug offense during a period when you were NOT receiving federal student aid, then you are likely eligible for future federal aid; however, if the offense occurred while you were receiving aid, you’ll have to go through a lengthier process (and waiting period) before you’ll be eligible to receive aid again.
Want to learn more federal financial aid eligibility? Check out our short video The Ultimate Federal Financial Aid Eligibility Guide for more information!