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Federal Financial Aid Form Causes A Stir — Over Selective Service Question


Another bit of fallout from the U.S. strike against Iran - a burst of social media memes from young people worried about checking off the box for selective service on the federal financial aid form.


NICKI MINAJ: (Rapping) And I will retire with the crown.


CORNISH: On the video and music app TikTok, the dark humor turned on the idea that students needed to escape from being drafted into World War III. Now, there's no draft, but still, there was so much confusion that the government website for the selective service database crashed. Here to talk about it all is NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

Welcome to the studio.


CORNISH: Remind us again. Just what is the selective service?

NADWORNY: So all men aged 18 to 25 and living in the United States - so that's citizens and documented and undocumented immigrants - are required by law to register for selective service. It's been in place for almost 50 years. Selective service is the database that would be activated if there was a draft, but let's be clear here. There has not been a military draft in the United States since 1973. We have a volunteer military. And for that to change, there would be lots of steps that would have to happen. For most folks, this is just a box you check when you get a driver's license and when you fill out the Federal Application for Student Aid, FAFSA.

CORNISH: So by including this question on the student aid forms, the government is trying to streamline the process...

NADWORNY: Exactly.

CORNISH: ...Make it easier.

NADWORNY: Yeah. It's meant to be helpful. Question 22 is - means that if you do it on the FAFSA, you don't have to go to this other website and do it. It's basically trying to prevent you from being unable to get the thing you're applying for, which is loans and federal aid.

CORNISH: So why did the database see so much traffic this week to the point where it would crash? And how do we know what people were concerned about?

NADWORNY: So I think folks were concerned online about this connection between what was perceived as a potential draft and filling out the FAFSA. So there's this question on the FAFSA, and a lot of teens and young adults took to Twitter and TikTok on social media. And they weren't sure what this connection was, and that frightened them.

CORNISH: Can you talk about what the connection is between the selective service and the student financial aid form?

NADWORNY: Yeah. So every year, you fill out this FAFSA, this form, and you're applying for aid - so student loans and money. Most states and schools also use this form to give out money for college. Federal student aid, it grew out of aid for veterans. So you think back to kind of the - what eventually became the GI Bill, and that was really the beginning of federal student aid. So there's been this link between national security and education policy for a long time.

The FAFSA has a bunch of questions, and Question 22 says, if you're a male aged 18 to 25 and you haven't registered for selective service, this thing you have to do by law - if you haven't done this, check this box on the FAFSA, and they'll register for you. The reason why this is so important is if you don't register for selective service, you're ineligible for a lot of federal benefits, including federal financial aid.

CORNISH: So that's one consequence. What else happens to people who don't register?

NADWORNY: So if you don't register, it's technically a felony, though no one's been actually prosecuted for this since the 1980s. The real impact is, you know, you're not eligible for these benefits like federal student aid. It could prevent you from getting certain jobs and participating in job training programs. There is an appeals process, so if you can demonstrate that your failure to register wasn't willful, then you can have some of these benefits reinstated.

CORNISH: What has been the response from the government to this - I don't know - for lack of a better term, kind of outcry or concern from young people?

NADWORNY: Yeah. Well, I think they're kind of - a tactic has been to put out on social media that - what the right information is, to make sure the website is up and running - it is now - and to make sure that folks know that there hasn't been a draft since 1973 and that it would take a lot of steps to implement one.

CORNISH: That's NPR's Elissa Nadworny.

Thanks for explaining it.

NADWORNY: Thanks, Audie.

(SOUNDBITE OF BIG STAR SONG, "BALLAD OF EL GOODO") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Elissa Nadworny reports on all things college for NPR, following big stories like unprecedented enrollment declines, college affordability, the student debt crisis and workforce training. During the 2020-2021 academic year, she traveled to dozens of campuses to document what it was like to reopen during the coronavirus pandemic. Her work has won several awards including a 2020 Gracie Award for a story about student parents in college, a 2018 James Beard Award for a story about the Chinese-American population in the Mississippi Delta and a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for excellence in innovation.