Student-loan legislation that disintegrated last year in an apparent burst of pre-election partisanship has been reconstructed in Congress, with a new provision to help students convicted of past drug offenses.
The measure, reintroduced by Rep. Howard “Buck” McKeon, R-Calif., aims to streamline the process of borrowing for many students taking out federal financial aid, its backers say, and reduce bureaucratic costs and hassles for administrators on campuses.
But this year, the bill also includes a proposal to eliminate language in a federal law that keeps students convicted of prior drug offenses from getting federal aid for college—a penalty that lawmakers from both parties say is unfair and has generated unintended consequences.
The law stems from 1998, when Congress barred drug offenders from receiving federal student aid for one or two years, depending on the offense. The law has affected students convicted while receiving financial aid and to those with past offenses.
But the measure’s sponsor, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., said it was never meant to apply to students who had committed transgressions before college—and thus might have gone straight since. The Department of Education, however, adopted the more expansive interpretation. As a result, thousands of students a year lost access to federal financial aid, critics of the policy charged.
Rep. McKeon’s bill includes a provision that would make the penalty apply only to students convicted of drug crimes while they were enrolled in college and receiving student aid, and not penalize students for past offenses.
Rep. Souder fully supports that change, said his spokesman, Seth Becker. The representative believes that students guilty of drug offenses while in school should continue to be denied financial aid, Mr. Becker said, but that a 40-year-old mother returning to school, for instance, shouldn’t be hurt financially because of a misstep decades before.
Rep. George Miller of California, the ranking Democrat on the House Education and the Workforce Committee, also approves of the proposed change and generally supports the overall bill, said his spokesman, Danny Weiss.
David Borden, the executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network, an advocacy group based in Washington, also backs the change, but says it doesn’t go far enough. Repealing the drug penalty for student aid in its entirety is important, he said, to keep students from being penalized for minor drug infractions.
“We’re supportive of it, as long as people understand it doesn’t settle the issue,” Mr. Borden said.
The length of the student-aid penalty currently depends on whether the crime is a first offense, and whether it stems from possessing narcotics or selling them. Students are required to say whether they have been convicted of drug offenses on the federal financial-aid application.
Rep. McKeon’s bill, or the FED UP (an acronym that sponsors parsed out of the longer title, Upping the Effectiveness of Our Federal Student Aid Programs) Higher Education Technical Amendments Act of 2003, also would reinstate two federal laws that expired last year.
The first would allow colleges that meet a standard for maintaining low default rates for students to waive a federal rule that forces first-year, first-time borrowers to wait 30 days before receiving their loans. A second provision would allow schools that met the same low-default standard to give out loans in a single disbursement per term—typically a quarter, trimester, or semester—rather than having to follow laws that mandate more than one payout during those terms.
The bill also includes a measure that would clarify that students who were home-schooled during their K-12 years are eligible to receive federal financial aid, a provision some higher education officials say is unclear in the current law.
In addition, the bill would forgive student loans for spouses of police, fire, military, and rescue personnel who were victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks.
Rep. McKeon and others have touted the bill as a vehicle for moving relatively noncontroversial changes into law before Congress takes on the potentially more combustible reauthorization of the Higher Education Act later this year.
Last year, Republicans initially promoted the FED UP bill as having bipartisan support, only to see it die on the floor of the House, amid a testy exchange of party-line denunciations and accusations.
GOP leaders contended that Democrats were sabotaging the proposal as part of a pre-election bid to derail Republican legislation. Democrats countered that Republicans were trying to ram the measure through, without allowing for consideration of amendments.