Drug Offenders Barred From Student Aid
Some worry new policy could prove counterproductive
WASHINGTON — Students convicted of drug offenses will be barred from receiving federal college tuition aid for one year from date of conviction and, in some cases, permanently under rules that take effect next summer.
The regulations, which federal officials acknowledge may be difficult to enforce, are based on a law enacted last year to reduce waste in the student loan system. Critics contend the new rules are counterproductive. “It’s kind of backward to deal with a drug policy by denying people an education,” says Jamie Pueschel, a 1998 college graduate who is now the legislative director of the Washington-based U.S. Student Association.
U.S. Department of Education officials say the new rules will require students to report any drug convictions on forms for federal financial aid, including Pell grants and student loans. They do not apply to juvenile records, and some students will be able to retain eligibility by completing drug rehabilitation or by having their convictions overturned.
U.S. Department of Justice officials say there’s no database designating student drug offenses, but a statement released by Sen. Judd Gregg, R-N.H., cites a University of Michigan study that says 33.5 percent of college students had used illegal drugs in 1995.
And a recent nationwide survey indicates that drug use among young adults ages 18 to 25 has risen in the last five years, with 16.1 percent, or 4.5 million, saying they were current users of an illegal drug, meaning they had used the drug in the month before they were surveyed.
D. Jean Veta, the U.S. Department of Education’s deputy general counsel, had no estimate for how many students the regulations could affect, but added: “If we find out a student has lied, we not only require repayment of any aid received, but the student would be at risk for prosecution for lying to the federal government.
“We are very concerned about students being truthful about all aspects of the financial aid application,” Veta says.
“It is impossible to speculate how this will play out on our campuses,” says Dr. Victor Collins, director of multi-cultural services at Virginia Commonwealth University.
“But when you look at our prison system — which is so disproportionately Black — one could infer that this could have some [disproportionately] negative impact on students who are African American. I’d ask the question, are we also penalizing other felonies? …
“It is troubling to me,” Collins says,” because if the answer is one can be a murderer, a rapist, convicted of assault and still get federal assistance, why are drugs being singled out for this response?”
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who unsuccessfully sought to limit the student loan legislation, says such provisions could unfairly affect young people who were not serious drug users.
“Obviously if someone is a drug dealer or a serious user, that is a reason to say no,” Frank says. “This kind of blanket ban is a mistake.”
Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which opposes the law, plans to meet here for a conference on that and other issues next month.
Under the regulations, which were released late last month, a first-possession conviction will block aid for a year, while a sales conviction will bar aid for two years. Students convicted of possessing drugs for a second time will lose aid for two years; a third time, permanently. A student convicted twice of selling drugs will lose aid permanently.
Colleges won’t have to police their students. Instead, students will be asked to report their own criminal records on aid forms subject to review by federal officials. Students must complete forms in each year of eligibility with other self-reported information such as income and academic status, Veta says.
“What bothers me is you are almost requiring people to report on themselves, and the natural tendency will be not to be forthcoming with that information,” Collins says. “Whereby, if you have been [convicted of a drug-related crime] and you don’t report it, then you’ve already broken another rule.
Convictions occurring after students apply for aid but before July 1, when the rules take effect, may result in the loss of eligibility. For example, a first drug-possession conviction Feb. 1 would make a student ineligible for aid from July 1, 2000, until Feb. 1, 2001.
–Cheryl D. Fields contributed to this report.
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