Opponents mount challenge to financial aid drug law

Latasha Webb

One of last year’s most controversial bills is being reviewed by U.S. legislators dismayed with its effects.

The bill to prevent students with drug convictions from receiving federal college aid has some legislators regretting its approval.

About 9,000 of the 10 million students who applied for aid last year were ineligible for aid due to prior drug convictions.

U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., wrote the bill and is advocating a more lenient version of the original ban.

The U.S. Department of Education is considering changing the bill so it applies only to students convicted of drug offenses in college while receiving federal aid.

Almost 70 higher education institutions across the country support the provision’s repeal. The University, St. Cloud State University and the Association of Big Ten Schools are rallying against the ban.

The University’s director of student finance, Nancy Sinsabaugh, said she didn’t agree with the original provision because it could punish students trying to change their lives.

“I thought it was unduly harsh,” she said. “We have to have an opportunity for people to have a second chance. Everyone deserves a second chance.”

“I don’t believe skeletons in the closet should follow people for life,” University student David Dorman said. “(Students) should have full opportunities or else they will be stuck in the situation that made them deal drugs in the first place.”

But University police Capt. Steve Johnson said drug dealers and users are a danger anywhere, including on campus.

He said the provision might make students think twice before committing a drug-related crime. “I would hope that it would have a deterrent affect,” he said.

Congress approved the legislation in 1998, and the ban went into affect for the first time during the 2000-01 academic year.

Students with one drug distribution conviction are ineligible for federal aid for two years. Two distribution convictions make a student ineligible indefinitely.

Students with one drug possession conviction are ineligible for one year. Two possession convictions make students ineligible for two years and three means indefinite ineligibility. Students can recover eligibility through completion of a drug rehabilitation program.

An official at the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform said the department is getting too involved in criminal law.

The official said many studies show blacks comprise 13 percent of U.S. illegal drug users, but because of racial profiling, about 50 percent of people convicted on drug charges are black; thus the bill disproportionately inhibits black students from receiving aid.

In April the department of education said it would no longer grant aid to students who left the drug conviction question blank on the 2001-02 Free Application for Federal Student Aid.

“The major flaw in the provision is it singles out drug users and allows other felony convictions to go without the same punishment,” Sinsabaugh said, adding the policy should be consistent.

Everyone makes mistakes, Sinsabaugh said. “You prove you’re cleaned up, you’re now a responsible citizen. We should give you a second chance.”

 

Latasha Webb welcomes comments at [email protected]