When heading off to college or graduate school, most of us assume that student loans will be there if we need help. Almost 70% of college students take out student loans, carrying an average debt of just under $30,000. Parents also take out loans to finance their children's education, carrying an average of about $37,000 in student loans. But did you know that a criminal record can keep you from financing your education or your children's education through student loans? Even if a criminal record doesn't make you ineligible for student loans, you will still need to disclose criminal convictions on federal financial aid documents and many college applications.
Fortunately, in Pennsylvania, you may have options that will help you clear your record and get a student loan, including expungement and sealing of criminal records. An experienced Pennsylvania expungement attorney can discuss your options and guide you through the process.
How Can a Criminal Record Affect Student Loans?
Unfortunately, a mistake resulting in a criminal record can sometimes keep you from getting a student loan. On the Federal Application for Student Aid (FAFSA), you will have to answer questions about any criminal convictions and explain your record. In some cases, sexual assault can affect student loans. Any conviction for any forcible or nonforcible sexual assault that subjects you to an involuntary civil commitment, you will be ineligible for a Federal Pell Grant, even if you're still eligible for federal student loans.
If you have a criminal history of any other type of crime, such as burglary, theft, driving under the influence, shoplifting, or even homicide, you may still be eligible for student loans if you meet the lender's criteria. However, you will still have to answer questions about these convictions on the FAFSA.
The History of Drug Convictions and Student Loans
Some of the most common criminal convictions that we see affecting our clients' ability to obtain loans are drug-related offenses. However, a drug conviction won't automatically make you ineligible for student loans anymore.
In 1998, Congress amended the Higher Education Act of 1965 to restrict federal aid to students convicted of certain federal and state drug offenses. As a result, in the past, if you received a drug conviction while using federal student loans, it would bar you from obtaining future loans. In some cases, past drug convictions also disqualified students from obtaining loans, depending on the severity and type of conviction.
Possession of a Controlled Dangerous Substance
In the past, possession of a controlled dangerous substance could prohibit you from obtaining a federal student loan for one year after your conviction date. A second conviction could result in permanent disqualification from student loans.
Drug Distribution Offenses
In the past, drug distribution convictions would result in a bar from federal student loan eligibility for two years. Students were permanently disqualified from obtaining federal student loans for a second conviction.
As a result of Congress's modification of the law, the Government Accountability Office estimated that between 17,000 and 23,000 students were denied Pell Grants every year because of drug convictions. Additionally, students lost $100 million to $164 million in federal grants and loans each year. In 2006, Congress passed the Sauder Amendment, which limited the law to only include students who were currently using federal student aid at the time of their convictions.
Current Law, Drug Convictions, and Student Loans
Finally, in 2021, Congress acted. Now, a drug conviction will no longer disqualify students from receiving federal financial aid. However, the questions about prior convictions are still on the FAFSA. There are still some restrictions on federal aid. You aren't eligible for Pell Grants or federal student loans if you are currently incarcerated. You may still be eligible for a Federal Supplemental Educational Opportunity Grant or a Federal Work-Study. However, students who receive Pell Grants have priority for these programs. Moreover, navigating the scheduling issues of a work-study can be challenging while incarcerated.
Once released from jail, your drug convictions should no longer affect your eligibility for student loans. Even if you are on probation or parole, you will still be eligible. However, navigating eligibility can be tricky, and it may still affect your ability to obtain unsubsidized private loans for your education. In many cases, expunging or sealing your records may help clear your path. An experienced Pennsylvania expungement lawyer can explain your options.
Can I Expunge a Criminal Record in Pennsylvania?
The law may offer those with criminal records a second chance in Pennsylvania. In some circumstances, you may be eligible to expunge your records. An expungement is a court order requiring the state to destroy all records of an arrest and conviction. You may be able to expunge:
- A summary offense conviction if you aren't arrested or prosecuted for five years
- Underage drinking convictions after completion of all court-ordered requirements and after you turn 21
- Non-convictions, such as nolle prose dispositions, not guilty verdicts, dismissed charges, and dropped charges
- Juvenile convictions in some situations
Summary offenses are the lowest level of criminal violations in Pennsylvania and are typically punished by a fine rather than jail time. A summary offense can result in a maximum of 90 days in jail and a fine of up to $1,500. However, most summary offense convictions will result in just a fine. You can't typically expunge more serious convictions such as misdemeanors or felonies.
Can I Seal a Criminal Record in Pennsylvania?
You can't expunge most misdemeanors and felonies. However, under Pennsylvania's Act 5 of 2016, you may be eligible to seal some non-violent convictions, including drug-related offenses. Sealing a record differs from expungement because it removes your records from public view rather than destroying them.
You can seal records in Pennsylvania if:
- You have only second-degree and third-degree misdemeanor convictions
- You haven't been arrested in ten years
- You don't have any felony convictions, first-degree misdemeanor convictions, or second-degree misdemeanor simple assault convictions
- You completed your sentence and paid all court costs and fines
- You have no more than four misdemeanor convictions
Under Pennsylvania's Clean Slate Act of 2018, the state will automatically seal some criminal records, including:
- Not guilty verdicts
- Any arrest with no conviction
- Most non-violent criminal convictions after ten years
- Misdemeanor offenses with fewer than two years in prison
While sealing will remove your record from public view, it is still accessible to law enforcement and those using the FBI's criminal database. However, an experienced expungement attorney can let you know if sealing is a good option for you.
Hire an Experienced Pennsylvania Expungement Lawyer
Pennsylvania's law on sealing and expungement of adult and juvenile records is complicated and nuanced. You shouldn't try to navigate the law alone, particularly if you're concerned about your ability to obtain student loans for school. At the Lento Law Firm, Attorney Joseph D. Lento and his team have been guiding Pennsylvanians through the expungement process for years. Call the Lento Law Firm at 888.535.3686 or contact them online today. Find out how they can help you clean up your record.