Short answer: maybe.
If you want to go to college, it’s best not to get convicted of a crime. But it’s an unfortunate reality that sometimes it takes a serious wake-up call to realize you need to turn your life around and make something better for yourself. In many cases, that means education.
But, having a conviction on your record can make getting an education a little more complicated. Your eligibility for federal aid can be affected by a criminal record, although that depends on the type of conviction you have.
Are you incarcerated?
If yes, then you will have limited eligibility for the federal student aid program. You cannot get a federal pell grant nor a federal student loan. However, once you are released, most of these limitations will be removed. Limitations will be kept for sexual offenses and drug-related offenses, but federal work study (which provides tuition funds based on work) may be your best option if that is your scenario.
Are you on probation or parole?
Yes, you may receive consideration for all forms of federal aid. But remember, if your were convicted of a drug-related offense, or if you are subject to an involuntary civil commitment for a sexual offense, your eligibility may be limited to the federal work study program only.
Do you have a drug conviction (misdemeanor or felony)?
You’ll want to check out the FAFSA fact sheet, The FAFSA Facts for Students with Drug-related Convictions. This guide basically states that you may have to undergo a suspension for federal aid. It further states that if your eligibly for federal aid has been suspended due to a drug conviction, you can regain eligibility early by successfully completing an approved drug rehabilitation program or by passing two unannounced drug tests administered by an approved drug rehabilitation program. After 2 convictions of “sale of illegal drugs” you are ineligible indefinitely. For possession, there’s a 3-strikes policy.
Also note, if you are convicted of a drug-related offense after you submit the FAFSA you may be responsible for returning any financial aid you received during that period deemed ineligible.
Do you have any other conviction?
If you have a conviction of forcible or non-forcible sexual offense, no, you cannot receive a federal pell grant indefinitely. Upon serving your sentence, you may apply for student loans. With any other misdemeanors or felonies, you are in fact eligible for the federal financial aid program in total. Of course, keep in mind, eligibility for federal grants and loans require that you qualify financially.
Yes, having a criminal conviction on your record will make getting financial help for your education more difficult. But that doesn’t mean you should give up. Think of the great careers that people have built after finding themselves in prison: Civil Rights activist Malcolm X, country star Merle Haggard, and writer Piper Kerman all went on to significance only after their youthful mistakes caught up to them, and there are many more who made the most of their lives after a conviction. If you’ve been convicted of a crime, there are still resources available to fulfill your ambitions.