The United States hasn’t called for a military draft since 1972, but that doesn’t mean that the country’s conscription plan, called the Selective Service System, has been completely shut down. College-aged men are likely familiar with it because registering for the draft is one of the requirements of receiving federal financial aid for college.
However, a federal court ruling has turned the Selective Service registration requirement on its head, and that could have big ramifications for college students seeking financial aid.
U.S. District Judge Gray Miller ruled on February 22, 2019, that the draft’s men-only registration model, administered by the U.S. Selective Service System, is obsolete, thus making the draft unconstitutional in Judge Miller’s view.
This decision, if it stands, could affect the student aid landscape.
History of the Selective Service System
The Selective Service Act of 1917 was passed in May 1917. The Act gave the President the power to draft soldiers into the military.
Currently, male students filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid), are only eligible for financial aid if they register for selective service. This financial aid includes federal grants (such as the Federal Pell Grant), Federal Work Study, and federal student loans.
Women and Non-Binary People in the Military
Women have served in the military for more than a century operating in a variety of roles including doctors, nurses, drivers, and orchestra conductors.
Women have been allowed to serve in combat roles since 2015, which is one of the things that opened the door to Judge Miller’s ruling that women should be eligible for the draft. In fact, a Congressional panel recently recommended that the draft be expanded to include women, which may make the case’s eventual settlement moot.
Currently, non-binary and transgender people are permitted to serve in the military openly. However, in practice, there are many complex policies that may make it difficult for transgender and non-binary people to serve, such as an 18-month waiting period before enlistment for transgender and non-binary people who receive a gender-related diagnosis, receive treatment, or begin to transition.
The Law as it Stands Now
Under current law, many Americans must register with the Selective Service System within 30 days of turning 18. The Selective Service System accepts late registrations up until the registrant’s 26th birthday. Once you turn 26, you cannot register.
Currently, all male citizens as well as male immigrants residing in the United States must register. The current policy states that the requirement is based on the gender originally listed on the registrant’s birth certificate rather than the registrant’s gender identity.
This means that those assigned male at birth who now identify as female are still required to register. Those who were assigned female at birth who now identify as male are not required to register.
Transgender people are not currently barred from joining or serving in the military, however, registrants may be able to appeal their draft status based on being transgender should the draft return.
Failure to register for the draft can carry hefty penalties, but the reality is that they’re rarely enforced. Failing to register is a felony that can carry fines of up to $250,000 and five years in jail. People who fail to register may not be eligible for federal jobs and job training and immigrants may have trouble naturalizing as a U.S. citizen.
If you don’t register for the draft, you may also be unable to qualify for federal student aid to pay for college. When you fill out the FAFSA, the form will prompt you to register for the draft if you haven’t yet, which can help you make sure you’re eligible.
How Failing to Register Affects Financial Aid
Under current law, a male student will not be eligible to receive federal financial aid for college if they fail to register for the draft.
This can have a huge impact on your ability to pay for college. More than 80% of Americans receive some amount of federal aid to help them pay for school. In 2019, the federal government provided more than $41 billion in grants to students.
When filling out the FAFSA, men can check a box on the form to register for the draft automatically. However, if you are 26 or older by the time that you fill out the form, you are no longer allowed to register. This can render you ineligible for federal and possibly state benefits.
If you are no longer able to register, you may still be able to qualify for financial assistance if you can prove to the government that you have extenuating circumstances. For example, if you can prove that you were outside of the country between the ages of 18 and 26, very ill, or injured, you may be able to avoid the consequences of failing to register.
You also have to prove to the government that you did not knowingly and willfully fail to register.
If you can do this, you will once again be able to qualify for federal grants and loans to help pay for college.
How to Know If You’re Registered with the Selective Service System
The Selective Service System makes it relatively easy to check your Selective Service registration status. Before you fill out the FAFSA, you should take the time to confirm your eligibility for federal student aid by checking your status.
The easiest way to know that you’ve registered for the draft is to find your registration acknowledgement card. If you register by mail, you should receive a card from the Selective Service System within 90 days. If you register online, you’ll get the card within three weeks.
To check your registration status online, you can visit the Selective Service System website. Enter your last name, birth date, and Social Security number. If you’ve registered, the website will confirm your status and your registration date.
If you’ve never registered and are over 26, you may need to file an exemption to qualify for financial aid. You can request an exemption by filling out a form and mailing it to the Selective Service System.
Responses to the Ruling
The Selective Service System appealed Judge Miller’s ruling to the United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit. On August 13th, 2020, the Court of Appeal overturned Judge Miller’s ruling, stating that a lower court should not overturn a decision of the Supreme Court.
The Supreme Court has previously found the draft to be constitutional in multiple cases, despite many arguments against it, including its focus on drafting men and arguments likening it to involuntary servitude.
The National Coalition for Men, which filed the case leading to Judge Miller’s decision, is considering an appeal to the Supreme Court.
What Happens If This Ruling Stands?
Judge Miller’s ruling found that because the draft only affects men, it’s unconstitutional. There are many implications of this ruling. If it stands, it could have an impact both on the draft and student aid.
Under current law, registration requirements are based on people’s birth gender rather than gender identity. If the government adjusts the system to require all people turning 18 to register, those assigned female at birth may have to register with the Selective Service System to qualify for federal aid.
If the government abolishes the Selective Service System entirely, the requirement to register will no longer play a role in determining eligibility for aid.
The most complex situations apply to transgender and non-binary students. Currently, those assigned female at birth who identify as men do not need to register, though some do so anyway to avoid bureaucratic confusion that could impact their aid. Whether those listed as non-binary on their birth certificates (which is allowed in some, but not all states) must register is an open question.
For now, it is difficult to predict all of the implications of this ruling. If it’s upheld, students should keep a close eye on announcements from the government and the Selective Service System to ensure that they remain eligible for aid.
While there are no signs that the United States will start the draft again in the near future, that doesn’t mean the country plans to disassemble the Selective Service System.
However this court case plays out, it will most likely result in changes to who must register for the draft and how they register instead of ending Selective Service registration entirely.
Make sure you know what is required of you to maintain your eligibility for federal financial aid.