The opinion of the court was delivered by: LORD, III
The Pennsylvania Higher Education Assistance Agency was established to provide financial assistance to students enrolled in postsecondary education programs by guaranteeing loans and scholarships. Plaintiffs attack those portions of Chapter 18 which allow the agency to deny financial aid to any student convicted of a felony.
Specifically, they challenge 24 P.S. §§ 5104.1 and 5158.2(a)(1),
and 5171 et seq.
The thrust of their complaint is that Pennsylvania, in contravention of the equal protection clause, has discriminated against former felons by treating them differently from non-felons in considering their applications for financial assistance.
"(1) A criminal offense which under the laws of the United States or any state constitutes a felony.
"(2) A criminal offense which under the laws of the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania constitutes murder of the first degree, felony of the first degree, felony of the second degree, felony of the third degree, misdemeanor of the first degree, misdemeanor of the second degree, and misdemeanor of the third degree.
"(3) A violation of section 13 of the Controlled Substance, Drug, Device and Cosmetic Act, act of April 14, 1972, No. 64 (35 P.S. § 780-113), except subsection (31) thereof." 22 Pa. Code 121.6.
If an applicant responds on the loan guaranty or grant application form that he has not been convicted of a crime, PHEAA presumes that his character is satisfactory and makes no further inquiry. If, however, the applicant answers that he has been convicted of a crime, the agency sends him a crime inquiry form on which the applicant must list the dates of arrest and conviction, the specific charges of which he was convicted, the penalty imposed, the length of time of incarceration or parole, and the name and address of the court in which he was sentenced. Additionally, any applicant still on parole must attach a letter of reference from the parole officer.
The felon's application is first considered by an agency staff person. If this initial determination is that the applicant is of unsatisfactory character, he is so informed and advised that he may appeal the decision. If he decides to appeal, he must submit additional information concerning the circumstances of his arrest and conviction. The appeal process encompasses several stages. First, the decision is reviewed by the Administrative Review Committee, composed of staff personnel selected by PHEAA's Executive Director. If still aggrieved, the applicant may appeal to the Committee on Appeals, a subcommittee of PHEAA's Board of Directors. Next the student has the right to appeal to the full Board of Directors which appoints a hearing examiner to take testimony and make recommendations to the Board for final decision. If dissatisfied with the agency's final determination, the applicant may appeal to the Commonwealth Court of Pennsylvania. See 22 Pa. Code §§ 121.7, 121.8.
Plaintiffs argue that the state's discrimination against felons may not stand because the felon classification bears no substantial, or even rational, relationship to any legitimate state purpose; because the classification is both over- and under-inclusive; and because PHEAA administers the act arbitrarily and capriciously. We shall consider these claims in turn.
We begin our analysis by rejecting plaintiffs' attempt to subject the state's system to the "strict scrutiny" standard of review. That standard is applied to state legislation which either infringes a "fundamental" interest or disfavors a "suspect class." See, e.g., SAN ANTONIO SCHOOL DISTRICT v. RODRIGUEZ, 411 U.S. 1, 16-17, 36 L. Ed. 2d 16, 93 S. Ct. 1278 (1973). Any claim here that strict scrutiny of the act and regulations is required because they bear on a fundamental constitutional right to a college education must certainly fail in light of RODRIGUEZ. In that case, the Supreme Court, while conceding the central importance of education to our society, id. at 29-30, nevertheless held that primary and secondary education are ...