Federal Student Drug Law Under New Scrutiny

Federal Student Drug Law Under New Scrutiny
Posted by CN Staff on April 03, 2005 at 22:19:56 PT
By Bill Zlatos, Tribune Review
Source: Tribune Review 
Robert had spent two months in jail and received four years of probation for his 2003 conviction for selling marijuana. The Erie man, who asked that his last name not be used, completed a rehab program and wanted to go to college. As he filled out his six-page application for financial aid to attend Penn State-Behrend in the fall, Robert confronted Question 31. That's the one that asks whether an applicant has been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs.
A federal law adopted in 1998 denies federal loans, grants and jobs through Work Study programs to college students convicted of possessing or selling drugs. When it was implemented in 2000, it also was extended to applicants with drug convictions who want to enter college. Robert, 20, was able to get a grant because of an exemption he received for completing a drug rehabilitation program that includes two drug tests. "I don't come from a family that has money," he said. "If I wouldn't have been able to get money, I wouldn't have been able to go to school, and I would have been stuck in a dead-end job for a while until I could save up money." Students and higher education officials say denying financial aid to former offenders wanting to enter college discriminates against low-income applicants trying to rebuild their lives. "It seems a little unfair to me that somebody could commit a murder or another violent felony, serve their time and still be eligible for a student loan," said U.S. Rep. Mike Doyle, D-Swissvale. "Yet if a high school student, because they're young and not thinking straight, gets caught on a marijuana charge, they're banned for life from getting a student loan." President Bush's proposed 2006 budget would ease the ban so it would apply only to students convicted of drug crimes while they're in college. The U.S. House, meanwhile, is considering a proposal to repeal the entire law -- rekindling a debate about whether society should forgive and forget drug crimes. "In many cases, the kinds of loans available are the only way kids can go to school," said William Elliott, vice president of enrollment at Carnegie Mellon University. "The real question is what is our society going to require of people when they've transgressed." Of the 13 million Americans who applied for college financial assistance this year, 10 million will receive about $73 billion. That means 3 million applicants were denied aid for various reasons. In the past five years, 101,434 students completing their aid applications discovered they weren't eligible because of their drug convictions, according to data provided by the U.S. Department of Education. The law, authored by U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Indiana, makes a person ineligible to get aid for one year after the first possession offense, two years for the second and indefinitely after a subsequent conviction. Those who sell drugs are ineligible for financial aid for two years for the first conviction and indefinitely for subsequent offenses. Students can restore their eligibility if they complete a drug rehabilitation program that includes two unannounced drug tests. Souder had intended the law to apply only to students convicted while in college -- not to those applying to get in, said Martin Green, Souder's press secretary. The law, however, does not specify that. Green said the Clinton administration applied the law too broadly and applied the ban to people convicted of drug crimes before they ever got to college. "Congressman Souder has been working since 1998 to remedy the misinterpretation," Green said. Some officials say that college students convicted of using or selling drugs while in school should forfeit their eligibility for government assistance. "When American taxpayers are supporting a student's education, they have every right to ask that student to keep a clean record while they're receiving assistance," said U.S. Rep. Melissa Hart, R-Bradford Woods. She favors clarifying the law so that the ban applies only to students convicted while they're in college. Bob Latta, director of financial aid at Westminster College in New Wilmington, Lawrence County, also prefers limiting the ban to convictions that occur during college. "If somebody's in school and convicted of drugs, I could see that being a penalty," he said, "but I wouldn't want to make it a lifetime thing." Robert was arrested in Edinboro in September 2002 when he was caught with 8 ounces of marijuana. He had celebrated his 18th birthday three months earlier and had graduated from high school the previous spring. After his jail term in Erie, he completed a rehabilitation program through Catholic Charities and passed his drug tests. Even though Robert is eligible for $10,075 in federal aid, he dislikes Question 31. "It's a little harsh for first-time offenders that they should be denied funding for trying to turn their lives around," he said. "It's almost as if they're trying to hold people back that have made a mistake and send them back down the path they were heading in before." Jack Daniel said he questions the fairness of the aid ban. He is vice provost for undergraduate studies at the University of Pittsburgh. "The penalty is too severe for the crime in question and disproportionately affects African Americans and lower socioeconomic people in general," he said. "Martha Stewart commits a crime and is out in a couple months." The National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the American Council on Education, both based in Washington, D.C., oppose the law. The administrators' group dislikes using financial aid to achieve social goals, no matter how well-meaning they are, said Larry Zaglaniczny, a lobbyist for the group. It also maintains that the policy punishes drug offenders twice for the same offense. Besides denying some students financial assistance, the ban could discourage others from applying, said Chris Simmons, the council's assistant director of governmental relations. Doyle supports a Democratic bill that would repeal the ban. But he concedes the Bush administration's plan has a better chance of passing the Republican-controlled Congress. Maryann Dudas, director of financial aid at Seton Hill University in Greensburg, Westmoreland County, favors a repeal. She contends that yanking a student's financial aid for smoking a joint in his room might discourage student supervisors in the dorms from enforcing the law. "That's an awfully big responsibility to put on somebody," she said. Source: Tribune Review (Pittsburgh, PA)Author: Bill Zlatos, Tribune ReviewPublished: Monday, April 4, 2005 Copyright: 2005 Tribune-Review Publishing Co.Contact: opinion tribweb.comWebsite: Articles & Web Site:SSDP Aid Bill Needs Revision Financial Aid Rule Attacked and its Consequences of Drug Rules Considered
Home Comment Email Register Recent Comments Help

Post Comment