Pubdate: Mon, 21 May 2001
Source: Inquirer (PA)
Copyright: 2001 Philadelphia Newspapers Inc
Contact:  http://inq.philly.com/content/inquirer/home/
Details: http://www.mapinc.org/media/340
Author: Jake Wagman, Inquirer Suburban Staff
Cited: National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws 
http://www.norml.org/
Students for Sensible Drug Policy http://www.ssdp.org/
Bookmark: http://www.mapinc.org/hea.htm (Higher Education Act)

COLLEGE AID CURBS FOR DRUG CONVICTIONS CRITICIZED

Thousands of current and future college students who have been convicted of 
drug-related offenses - and admit it - are ineligible for federal tuition 
aid for at least one year under a 1998 law that is being fully implemented 
for the first time.

The law is nearly impossible to adequately enforce, government and college 
officials say, and has produced an unlikely alliance of critics - groups 
such as the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators 
and the National Organization for the Reform of Marijuana Laws - who say it 
amounts to double punishment for drug offenses and unfairly penalizes 
low-income students.

"It's a bad law. We should not be using the financial-aid system to enforce 
social behaviors," said Rachel Lohman, chairwoman of financial aid at 
Wilkes University in Wilkes-Barre, Pa., and chairwoman of the national 
financial-aid group.

"It discriminates by your family's socioeconomic status, because if you're 
from an affluent family, you won't be penalized, and I have a problem with 
that," said Walter Cathie, dean of financial aid at Widener University in 
Chester. "I don't consider myself liberal, by any means, and I do see the 
other side of this, but what we are doing is taking away these kids' 
education."

Under the law, students convicted of any drug offense since their 18th 
birthday become ineligible for federal financial aid - grants and loans - 
for one or two years, depending on whether they were charged with 
possession or sale. Repeat offenders will be permanently ineligible for aid.

"That will stop a lot of people from going to school," said Nikiya 
Atkerson, a senior psychology major at Rutgers University-Camden who uses 
federal aid to pay for her education.

In order to have their eligibility reinstated, students must participate in 
a federally approved drug-rehabilitation program, which includes two 
surprise urine tests.

The student-aid application question, which has two boldface warnings - "Do 
not leave this question blank" - reads:

"Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs? If 
you have, answer 'Yes,' complete and submit this application, and we will 
send you a worksheet in the mail for you to determine if your conviction 
affects your eligibility for aid."

Supporters of the legislation say the law works similarly to programs for 
drunken-driving offenders, who have their licenses revoked. They also 
compare it to revoking voting for felons.

Jeff Brown and Arbella Manacchio, freshman pre-med majors at Drexel 
University who receive aid to pay for their education, see both sides of 
the debate.

"I'm kind of for it, and I'm kind of against it," said Brown, originally 
from Bucks County. "There are some types of aid that give students cash for 
spending money, and I don't think [students convicted of a drug offense] 
should be eligible for that."

"But what if it's your first time smoking pot and you get caught?" said 
Manacchio, of Philadelphia. "If I lost my loan, I would have to drop out of 
school because I couldn't afford it."

Bethann Miller, 21, founded the University of Pennsylvania chapter of 
Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an organization that has grown from two 
to more than 100 chapters since Congress passed the drug-free provision.

"The idea for taking away the education for a student who makes one mistake 
is rather ridiculous," said Miller, a philosophy major. "It's like 
punishing them twice for the same crime."

Passed as an amendment to the Higher Education Act, the drug question first 
appeared on federal-aid forms in the 2000-01 academic year. But, due to 
vague wording, about 280,000 out of 9 million applicants left the question 
blank last year, and the department decided to grant aid to students who 
did not answer it.

This year, ambiguous phrases on the form have been changed, and students 
will be denied aid until they answer the question.

Early in the financial-aid season  this is the 19th week of a 70-week 
period when students can apply for aid for the 2001-02 academic year  only 
a fraction of students have been affected.

Nationally, 17,354 students who applied for aid indicated they had been 
convicted of a drug offense, roughly 0.36 percent of all applicants, 
according to the U.S. Department of Education.

Among some of the local schools that have students who have been made 
ineligible for aid, Pennsylvania State University said it had fewer than 
10, Rowan University in Glassboro had eight, and Temple University had a 
"handful" of students.

Still, some financial-aid administrators are dismayed by the law's 
implications.

Liz Rihl Lewinski, director of financial aid at Beaver College, where one 
financial-aid applicant admitted to a drug conviction, said the law had 
been "a pretty controversial topic."

"It puts an extra burden on students who have truly reformed themselves to 
document that they have completed a rehabilitation program," Lewinski said, 
"particularly if they are attempting to get an education to better their 
situations."

The provision is "tantamount to a phobic reaction by members of Congress," 
said Bill Stanford, director of financial aid at Lehigh University in 
Bethlehem, Pa. "Call it drugaphobia."

A spokeswoman for the author of the legislation, U.S. Rep. Mark Souder (R., 
Ind.), said the intent of the law was to hold accountable students whose 
tuition is paid with taxpayer dollars, and to make sure those students did 
not use the money to finance a drug habit.

"If you're receiving taxpayer funds and you're using or selling drugs, 
you're not making the best opportunity of that money being given to you," 
said Angela Flood, Souder's chief of staff. "Federally financed student 
loans is a privilege. If it were a right, everyone would receive it.

"You can't learn well if you are stoned."

The U.S. representative's office is working with White House officials to 
develop a way to check whether students are telling the truth about drug 
convictions. For now, financial-aid administrators are dependent on the 
honesty of students.

Verifying the accuracy of student responses would require access to 
criminal records in every municipal and state jurisdiction nationwide. Both 
sides agree there is no one database for administrators to verify responses 
to the application question.

No other single question on the federal-aid form has the ability to make a 
student ineligible.

"It is shocking that the potential lethal power of this question is 
delivered without the ability to adequately and evenly enforce the law. It 
is an exercise in absurdity," said Aquila Galgon, director of financial aid 
for the University of the Arts in Philadelphia, where no students have lost 
aid because of a drug conviction.

A bipartisan coalition on the House Education Committee has drafted a 
largely symbolic measure to repeal the provision from federal financial-aid 
laws. The bill would probably not be voted on until next year.

"I believe people should have a second chance," said U.S. Rep. Robert E. 
Andrews (D., N.J.).

"The President has all but admitted his involvement with cocaine," Andrews 
said. "But I don't think that should disqualify him from running for, and 
being elected to, the highest office in the land." 
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MAP posted-by: Richard Lake