Law may deny financial aid to students who use drugs

(U-WIRE) PITTSBURGH – Using drugs may soon become even more costly for college students – they could lose their federal financial aid.

Under next year’s higher education bill, currently in a House-Senate conference committee, students convicted of possessing or selling marijuana or other illegal drugs could have their federal financial assistance for college suspended.

“Taxpayers have a right to know that students who have a drug abuse problem aren’t using tax dollars to go through school,” said U.S. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), the prime sponsor of the provision. “Any time you go into the public treasury, the public has a right to hold you accountable.”

More than 40 percent of undergraduates who attend public universities and more than half of private school-goers working toward their bachelor’s degrees rely on some type of federal aid to complete their education, according to a national study done by the U.S. Department of Education three years ago. The study also found that undergraduates from lower income families were much more likely to receive assistance, as were African-American and Hispanic students.

In 1997, the federal government allocated $16.6 billion of its budget to federal financial aid initiatives. This figure does not include non-federal funds generated by federal legislation.

In Souder’s provision, the severity of punishment would depend on the number of prior offenses as well as the nature of the crime.

A first offense for drug possession would suspend a student’s federal aid for one year, while a second offense would bring a two-year suspension. A third conviction would result in indefinite suspension. The penalty for drug dealing would be more steep, with a first offense bringing a two-year suspension and subsequent convictions resulting in indefinite suspension.

By successfully completing a rehabilitation program and testing negative for drug use twice in random tests, students would be able to regain aid eligibility more quickly.

Souder said the punishment is meant to send a warning to America’s young people that if they experiment with drugs, there will be calamitous consequences down the road.

However, some feel the consequences don’t fit the crime and actually do more to fan the flames of drug use than to alleviate the problem.

“Philosophically, we don’t like the notion that if you need the financial aid, then the drug standard applies to you and if you don’t need financial aid, then it doesn’t apply,” said Jacqueline King, director of federal policy analysis for the American Council on Education, a group that represents hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the nation.

She said not only does the provision suggest prejudice – if a student is poor enough to need financial aid then he is more prone to experiment with drugs – it also has all the right ingredients for creating an administrative nightmare.

“College campuses are not going to know who has been convicted of drugs and who hasn’t unless the student voluntarily gives them this information,” King said. “Are universities supposed to do some huge background check? It’s just very confusing and this provision doesn’t make it clear how institutions are supposed to figure this out.”

While Souder sees problems and concedes the provision may take awhile to be implemented, he disagrees with critics who suggest there are no solutions.

“My feeling is that these are universities and this is the United States and people are tracking every type of information under the sun here,” Souder said.

He also said concern that the provision shows bias toward students who are able to afford college without the help of the government is misplaced.

This system will help students on financial aid to confront their drug problem and get the help they need to put their life in order, Souder said, whereas students with more money may never confront it.

“It’s not punishment for one group, but tragedy for another,” he said.

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