Don't Let Criminal Past Block Your Path to College Future

A felony conviction doesn't mean you can't find money to pay for higher education.

By + More

I know a smart young woman who works hard, manages a crew, and supports several children on her own by working at a low-wage, food service job with little in the way of personal time off or other benefits. She's extroverted, great with people, and seems to be a real go-getter. Although I am happy to see her every day as I order my chef salad, the job doesn't seem to match her skills. When I asked her about it, she told me she'd like to go back to college but doesn't think she can, because of a felony conviction she received when she was barely old enough to be called an adult.

If you're in the same boat, don't lose hope for your future because of a mistake you've made in the past. If you want to further your education, there is a way. You may just need to do a little more research to find college financing options that meet your needs.

The biggest obstacle to obtaining college financing is the type of felony conviction. If you were convicted under federal or state law of a crime involving possession or sale of a controlled substance, you will not be eligible for federal assistance for a period of time, depending on the type of offense. This includes grants, loans, or work assistance.

[Learn how to get organized before applying for college scholarships.]

For a possession conviction, eligibility for financial aid resumes after one year for a first offense, two years for a second offense, and indefinitely for a third offense. For a sale conviction, eligibility resumes after two years for a first offense and indefinitely after a second offense.

A student may regain eligibility before the end of the specified period if he or she satisfactorily completes a drug rehabilitation program with certain criteria, or the conviction is reversed or removed.

As far as scholarships, most scholarship applications do not ask about the applicant's criminal history, so generally speaking, if you would qualify for the scholarship without a felony conviction, you most likely will qualify for it with one. Follow The Scholarship Coach's great advice on searching for scholarships, and don't be afraid to apply for those for which you are eligible just because of a mistake you made in your past.

[Read 4 Do's and 1 Don't for Finding Scholarships.]

Two opportunities we haven't yet shared in this blog are also worth considering as you begin to plan for your future:

A great opportunity for adult students age 19 and above, who have interrupted their education for one year or more, is the College Now 2012-2013 Adult Learner Program.

College Now's scholarships can assist students in pursuing a nondegree certificate or license in a vocational or technical program, an associate degree or first bachelor's degree. Only Pell grant-eligible residents of the following Ohio counties may apply: Ashtabula, Cuyahoga, Geauga, Lake, Lorain, Mahoning, Medina, Portage, Stark, Summit, or Trumbull County. The deadline for taking advantage of this opportunity is April 15, 2012.

[Learn more about Pell grants.]

If you are planning to attend college in Illinois and have a felony conviction on your record, here is a unique opportunity: The Charles W. Colson Scholarship was established in 1988 to provide scholarship assistance for ex-offenders. Awards are based on need and are commonly matched with other funding, including grants, to defray the total cost of a Wheaton College education. Awards are for tuition and may cover room, board, and medical insurance for one degree program only (undergraduate or graduate). The scholarship program may help with needs that lead the student toward academic success, including tutoring and personal counseling.

Note: The deadline for the 2012-2013 academic year has passed (deadline is January 1 each year), and felony arsonists, felony sexual offenders, habitual violent offenders, and felony offenders under psychiatric care or taking anti-psychotic medication are not eligible for this scholarship program.

Janine Fugate joined Scholarship America in 2002. She is an alumna of the College of Saint Benedict, Saint Joseph, Minn., and is currently pursuing a Master of Public Affairs at the Hubert H. Humphrey School of Public Affairs at the University of Minnesota. Fugate is the recipient of numerous scholarships at both the undergraduate and graduate level.