Pubdate: Mon, 18 Jul 2005
Source: Capital Times, The  (WI)
Copyright: 2005 The Capital Times
Author: Megan Doughty
Bookmark: (Higher Education Act)
Bookmark: (Youth)


Financial Aid Loss Under Review

WASHINGTON - When 20-year-old Nathan Bush was pulled over in Kenosha 
last October with drug paraphernalia plainly visible in his car, he 
lost his driver's license - and tens of thousands of dollars in financial aid.

Bush, an incoming junior at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, said 
he could have been slapped with the far more serious charge of 
possession of marijuana, but instead had all of his federal dollars 
taken away in courtroom negotiations.

"Of course, I can't pick up that kind of slack," Bush said, adding 
that state aid covers only about half of the $15,000 a year he pays 
for his education. "So it all just falls on my parents, which I'm not 
proud of. But I just can't come up with that kind of money."

According to Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, the federal 
government since 1998 has refused educational aid to more than 
160,000 students like Bush, including many who were convicted of 
drug-related offenses before their initial application for aid.

As part of this year's reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, 
which a congressional committee is expected to consider this week, 
the so-called "retroactivity clause" could be repealed - in other 
words, the government could no longer legally withhold tuition 
assistance from students who were convicted of drug-related offenses 
before they filed their first application.

Tom Angell of SSDP said the measure is inadequate and called for 
broader legislation that would loosen the restrictions on students, 
like Bush, who are convicted while in school.

"While we welcome the change and think that it will help many 
students, there are still others who will be losing their aid," 
Angell said. "It's sort of like putting a Band-Aid on a gaping wound."

Rep. Tammy Baldwin, D-Madison, is one of 68 co-sponsors of a bill 
supported by the student group that would abolish the government's 
right to deny financial aid based on drug-related offenses, even if a 
student is convicted while enrolled in college.

Baldwin called the current law "incredibly inconsistent" because it 
targets even the most casual of drug users while ignoring convictions 
for violent crime.

"There's no prohibition on somebody who has been convicted of rape or 
murder," Baldwin said. "In practice, this is most likely to affect 
somebody who had one instance of illegal behavior during their youth."

Margaret Reiter, president of the UW-Madison chapter of the student 
group, added that many students probably don't report drug 
convictions because they doubt the Department of Education will 
investigate their past.

"It's only the honest students who are going to get punished," Reiter 
said. "They think it would be a huge waste of time and money for the 
government to go checking them out."

The original law that allowed the Department of Education to "suspend 
eligibility for drug-related offenses" was passed seven years ago as 
part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, which was 
originally crafted in 1965 to facilitate college education for 
low-income and minority students.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., introduced the drug-related provision. 
Souder spokesman Martin Green said the logic behind the legislation 
is quite simple.

"Students who receive taxpayer dollars to go to college are not 
making the most of it by taking drugs," Green said. "It's one thing 
if they're paying for their education or if their parents are paying 
for it, but it's unfair to ask taxpayers to foot the bill for a 
student with a drug habit."

The bill was also designed, Green said, as a preventative measure 
under the assumption that students hoping to receive financial aid 
would be less likely to use and sell drugs.

Angell takes issue with this reasoning, arguing that "the provision 
is only a deterrent to recovery and education."

Souder and Angell agree, however, on one surprising point. Green said 
Souder, as an Evangelical Christian who believes strongly in 
redemption, never intended for the bill to behave retroactively and 
neither did the two chambers of Congress when they passed it. That 
interpretation of the enforcement plan was made, he said, by the 
Clinton administration just before the bill was signed into law.

"Congressman Souder was outraged, of course, when the enforcement 
regulations were released, and he's been working ever since then to 
overturn that provision," Green said. "He's pleased that he has 
bipartisan support to restore the original intent of Congress."

Under the original bill, a student convicted of a drug-related crime 
was disqualified for financial aid from the date of conviction until 
a date determined based on number of prior convictions and nature of 
the crime. A student convicted of possession of a controlled 
substance for the first time, for example, loses eligibility for one 
year while a student caught selling for the second time is 
disqualified indefinitely.

Green said the language was not intended to exclude students applying 
for financial aid after their convictions, regardless of how recently 
they were in court.

But like Angell, Bush said he feels "hurt" by the measure as a whole 
and will continue to oppose it, whether or not it behaves retroactively.

"I just feel like there's no compassion in that law," Bush said. 
"It's just one strike and you're out. There are a lot of smart kids 
who smoke marijuana at Madison, and they're going to lose their money 
just for that? It really hurts me."

Bush, who graduated high school in Paddock Lake with a 3.8 GPA and 
considers himself a good student as a kinesiology and nutritional 
science major, said he attends weekly drug court and counseling 
sessions and is now drug free. He added that he is not sure when he 
will regain his financial aid but emphasized that he is eager to. He 
feels guilty, he said, because his parents already paid his legal 
bills on top of financing his sister's college education.

"I'll just keep applying every year and hoping," Bush said.
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