Students using drugs denied financial aid

Travis Reed

Students planning to apply for federal financial aid should prepare to divulge more than just their social security number, university and address.
The U.S. Department of Education published final rulings last Thursday on a law prohibiting students convicted of drug-related crimes from receiving federal financial aid.
The regulation makes students who have been convicted of drug charges ineligible to receive Pell Grants, student loans and other common types of federal aid.
The Education Department regulation, slated to take effect on July 1, would withhold funds depending on the severity and number of offenses.
With one conviction of drug possession, a student is barred from financial aid for one year. A second conviction bars a student for two years, and a student with three offenses will be indefinitely disqualified.
Those convicted of selling drugs once will be denied eligibility for two years. With more than one conviction, eligibility for financial assistance would be indefinitely denied.
If recent University Police reports are any indication, the new standards could spell trouble for an increasing number of University students.
Drug-related offenses have quadrupled during the past four years, according to University Police reports. From 1997 to 1998 alone, offenses jumped 26 percent.
Despite this trend, as well as vocal advocation of more stringent punitive measures for drug offenders, the bill has received a share of opposition — including skepticism from some University officials.
“I don’t necessarily think that it will keep people from using drugs, but I think it might keep people from completing their education,” said Dave Hayden, University coordinator of student behavior. “In substance-abuse prevention, we’ve found that scare tactics don’t work.”
A student’s eligibility for aid would be reinstated if the student completes a rehabilitation program, but critics charge that such a policy is useless to most.
“The law includes even simple possession of marijuana, and there is nothing out there to rehabilitate people from marijuana because many professionals don’t believe that you can be addicted to it,” said Jason Fizell, a member of the Department of Education committee that devised the regulations and staff person for the University of Wisconsin-Madison student government.
Additionally, critics say the law might hurt people already socially and economically disadvantaged.
“People who use drugs are most likely to need financial aid,” Hayden said. “Not everyone who uses drugs is economically disadvantaged, but it will affect people without money more than it will affect people with it.”
Fizell referred to the bill as a “farce,” and said strong opposition exists among student groups, police officials and many members of the Education Department’s committee.
Even those within the department say the bill lacks credibility because students must self-report convictions on their aid application.
Currently, no database of criminal records can be cross-referenced by the department.
“We won’t know whether or not students are guilty unless they put it on the applications or someone gives us evidence of the crime,” said Jane Glickman, Education Department spokesperson. “We hope people will follow the law and report honestly, but we don’t expect schools to check their students, either.”
Department officials said students caught misrepresenting information on federal financial aid forms would face felony charges.

Travis Reed welcomes comments at [email protected] He can also be reached at (612) 627-4070 x3235.