Congress stalls financial aid bill

Despite efforts by members of Congress, legislation to repeal a federal ban on financial aid for students with drug convictions has seen little progress since it was introduced in the House of Representatives last year.

The bill, House Resolution 786, would modify the drug provision of the 1998 Higher Education Act allowing students with prior drug convictions to remain eligible for federal financial aid. According to Department of Education data, 86,898 students have been denied federal financial aid since the provision went into effect in 2000.

“It’s a roadblock to education and double-jeopardy punishment for students who have already paid their debt to society,” said Shawn Heller, director of the national Students for a Sensible Drug Policy.

Heller, a GW alumnus, said the historically disproportionate arrest and conviction rate of minorities for drug offenses in relation to total drug users makes the provision especially restrictive to those groups.

Drug convictions are the only offense that can make a student ineligible for federal financial aid. Currently, a student with a first-time drug conviction for possession is denied financial aid for one year from the time of conviction. Eligibility is denied for two years for the second conviction and a third conviction permanently ends eligibility.

Students convicted of selling drugs are ineligible for financial aid for two years from the time of conviction for the first offense and permanently for the second offense. Students can regain their eligibility if they complete a drug rehabilitation program or if the ruling is overturned.

“It seems to me that if a rapist or murderer can get financial aid, someone with a minor drug offense should also have the same opportunity,” Jenny Marin said.

Universities are the chief enforcers of the provision, although verification of a student’s response on an aid application is based on the honor system and universities do not regularly validate the responses. Although not legally mandated, GW follows the same guidelines as the federal government when distributing its aid.

“GW gives out aid along the same lines as the federal government to be equitable to all aid students,” said Dan Small, director for student financial assistance.

Small said the University has not received an application for aid on which a student has indicated a drug conviction. Small said no official policy exists for dealing with a student convicted of a drug offense receiving financial aid.

Some students said they agree with the current provision.

“I don’t think the penalties are so strict,” Andrew Nicholls said.
“Eventually if the student doesn’t get busted they’ll get aid.”

Sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) and 66 other members of Congress, the amendment to repeal the drug provision was referred to the House Committee on Education and the Workforce Feb. 28, 2001 and then later that year to the House Subcommittee on 21st Century Competitiveness April 20, 2001. It is currently stalled in the subcommittee.

More than 41 organizations have joined in the effort to repeal the ban, including the NAACP, the NEA, American Civil Liberties Union, United States Student Association and Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

The Department of Education reports more than 10 million students apply for financial aid annually.

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