College & Workforce Readiness

Groups Decry Student-Aid Law’s Anti-Drug Provision

By John Gehring — June 20, 2001 4 min read
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When police found a small amount of marijuana residue in her car the day before her 19th birthday, Marisa Garcia was handed a ticket and sent on her way. After she was convicted of drug possession and paid a $415 fine, Ms. Garcia thought the incident could be put behind her.

But the California State University-Fullerton student later discovered that her minor scrape with the law had cost her much more: Ms. Garcia ended up losing her eligibility for federal student financial aid because of a change three years ago in the Higher Education Act.

“It was the first time I had ever been in trouble with the law,” said Ms. Garcia, who worked extra hours in a flower shop and turned to her family to help pay her tuition and expenses. “When I found out that if I was a murderer or child molester I would still be eligible, I really got mad.”

Some advocacy groups estimate the Department of Education may cut off federal aid to as many as 60,000 students in the upcoming academic year because of their prior convictions on drug-related charges. But a growing number of college students, financial-aid associations, and civil rights groups are working to overturn the provision.

They contend the financial aid rule unfairly penalizes poor and middle-class students who, without federal assistance, may not be able to continue their educations.

“The law amounts to a second punishment to people who have already been punished,” said David Borden, the executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network, a Washington-based group that has challenged how the government enforces drug laws and has helped raise money for students affected by the financial-aid provision.

Student government groups at 66 colleges and universities have passed resolutions calling for the repeal of the drug-conviction provision. In addition, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the American Council on Education, and the National Association of the Advancement of Colored People also have spoken out against the measure.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., introduced the provision, which Congress passed in 1998 when it reauthorized all federal spending for postsecondary education. Since then, even Mr. Souder has said he has concerns about how the law has been applied.

Angela Flood, Mr. Souder’s chief of staff, said the law was never intended to “reach back” and affect students with past drug convictions. The law was meant to “only apply to students who were convicted at the time they were applying for aid,” she said. “We hope to fix this.”

Mr. Souder plans to correct the problem through new legislation or when the Higher Education Act comes up for reauthorization, most likely in 2003. Meanwhile, Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., introduced a bill in February to repeal the provision. The bill has 23 sponsors. A similar measure introduced last year, also by Mr. Frank, died.

Confusion and Criticism

Confusion over how to interpret the provision has plagued the law from its start. During the Clinton administration, students could refuse—without penalty—to answer a question on the federal financial-aid form about whether they had been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs.

Of the 9.9 million applicants who filed for federal aid for this past academic year, about 9,000 identified a prior conviction. Most were partially ineligible for student aid. Some 279,000 left the question blank. But they did not lose their aid because Education Department officials believed that the question was worded awkwardly and that students who left it blank would have answered no to the drug-conviction question.

Secretary of Education Rod Paige said earlier this year that the Education Department would strictly enforce the drug provision, and officials reworded the question for the 2001-02 academic year to specify that everyone applying for federal aid had to answer it.

As of the end of April, the department had processed about 4.7 million financial-aid forms. Of those, 34,749 responded yes to the drug question. Nearly 11,000 applicants had not answered it.

The length of time students are ineligible for aid depends on the seriousness of a conviction and the number of past convictions they have. For the most common drug charge, marijuana possession, students are disqualified for a year from the date of a conviction. Students face longer periods of ineligibility for multiple possession charges or selling drugs.

Shawn Heller, the national director of Students For Sensible Drug Policy, a Washington-based group with members at 140 colleges and 10 high schools nationwide, said the provision encourages students to lie on their financial-aid forms.

“There is no national database of drug convictions,” Mr. Heller said. “Students will find out that in all likelihood they will not lose their aid if they answer no.”

Some critics, like the NAACP, argue that the law transplants racial inequities in the criminal-justice system regarding drug convictions to the higher education policy arena.

According to the Sentencing Project, a Washington-based group that advocates alternative sentencing for nonviolent drug offenders, African-Americans represent 35 percent of all arrests for drug possession, 55 percent of drug convictions, and 74 percent of those sentenced to prison—even though the Sentencing Project estimates that they make up only 13 percent of drug users.

Eileen O’Leary, the director of student aid and finance at Stonehill College in North Easton, Mass., and the president of the Massachusetts Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, said the law discourages some from applying for federal aid.

“It’s singling out a segment of the population, and it’s not equitably treating students,” she said. “These are young people working hard to get their lives back in order, and we are making it that much harder for them.”

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A version of this article appeared in the June 20, 2001 edition of Education Week as Groups Decry Student-Aid Law’s Anti-Drug Provision

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