U.S. financial aid rule under fire

Liala Helal

Students who couldn’t afford to enroll at the University because they were denied federal financial aid as a result of a previous drug conviction will likely see a change soon.

Controversy over the drug provision has heated up as members of Congress are using the Higher Education Act reauthorization process to modify the provision.

“Unfortunately, the provision was not interpreted and applied as it was intended,” said Alexa Marrero, press secretary for the House committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.

The drug provision, which was added as an amendment to the 1998 Higher Education Act, restricts students with previous drug convictions from receiving any type of federal financial aid for a set period.

The amended provision would apply to students charged with drug possession or the selling of illegal substances only if the conviction occurs while they are enrolled in college, Marrero said.

This change sounds better than it really is, said Erik Cooke, legislative director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

A person’s criminal record does not begin until they turn 18, which is also when most students start college. Therefore, because most students are charged while they are in college; the change would not affect them, Cooke said.

“(The provision) makes it sound like we’re cutting these people such a huge break, but it’s really a bit of a dark horse,” he said.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy reported that 182,810 applicants nationwide have been denied financial aid since 1998 because of drug convictions, according to statistics released by the U.S. Department of Education.

At the University, fewer than 10 students a year are denied aid because of a drug conviction, but that “really understates the potential number,” said Kris Wright, director of financial aid.

Many who are denied aid end up not going to college at all, she said, and an unknown number with convictions do not even try to apply for aid, assuming they will be denied.

The author of the drug provision, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., requested that a clarification be made in the House and Senate committees’ drafts of the higher education bills. Recently, the drafts containing this change passed in both committees.

Souder’s intent in creating the bill was to deter drug use among college students, rather than “reach back and limit financial aid for prior offenses,” Marrero said.

“Our goal was to clarify it to ensure it would be applied as it was originally intended back in 1998,” Marrero said.

Wright said this is a “step in the right direction.”

Still, many are hoping the provision is removed completely from the Higher Education Act.

“I personally would like to see the provision withdrawn,” Wright said.

Rep. Martin Olav Sabo, D-Minn., co-sponsored a bill that would repeal the original drug provision.

“Congressman Sabo believes it doesn’t make sense to discourage educational achievement for anyone,” said Jenifer McCormick, Sabo’s communications director.

The bill Sabo co-sponsored is pending in a House subcommittee.

Cooke said one of the biggest problems with the provision is that it singles out illegal drug use among thousands of other crimes, and also punishes a person twice for the crime.

But Marrero said students in school receiving aid will be less likely to use drugs with the provision in place.

“(Students) will have that as a reason to avoid these harmful behaviors, because they could face the possibility of losing their student aid,” she said.

A report released by the U.S. Government Accountability Office in late September found no evidence that the drug provision deters drug use among college students.

But the report also did not find a direct link between denying aid to students and the likelihood that those students would complete less postsecondary education.

Decisions will likely be made about the drug provision by the end of the congressional session this fall, Marrero said. She said she hopes the Higher Education Act will be reauthorized by the end of November.