Pubdate: Fri, 02 Mar 2007
Source: Daily Orange, The (NY Edu)
Copyright: 2007 The Daily Orange Corporation
Note: LTE form requires site registration
Author: Kevin Sajdak
Bookmark: (Higher Education Act)
Bookmark: (Students for Sensible Drug Policy)


UC Berkeley Amendment Bypasses Federal Aid Limits For Convicted Drug Offenders

The student government at the University of California, Berkeley 
recently created a school-funded scholarship for students deemed 
ineligible for financial aid because of a previous drug conviction.

Citing educational opportunity - while remaining critical of a 1998 
amendment to the Higher Education Act - Berkeley became the fourth 
college to establish such a scholarship. This is the first time a 
school's student government enacted such a change.

"It's absolutely ridiculous that we have a policy that takes money 
from people trying to go to school," said David Wasserman, the 
senator in the Berkeley Associated Students that drafted the 
scholarship program and a senior political science major. "What it 
actually does is deprive students of a means to education (which is) 
antithetical to the aims of the Higher Education Act."

Section 484 (r) of the Higher Education Act deems any student 
convicted in a state or federal court for a crime involving "the 
possession or sale of a controlled substance shall not be eligible to 
receive any grant, loan, or work assistance."

That amendment mandates a one-year aid suspension of aid for 
possession of a controlled substance for first time offenders. A 
two-year suspension is required for the second offense. Students with 
three drug-use convictions or two drug-dealing convictions are deemed 
permanently ineligible. Alcohol is not considered a controlled substance.

Congress will reevaluate the amendment this year as part of a 
reauthorization of the entire Higher Education Act, first drafted in 
1965. A 2006 provision in the Deficit Reduction Act narrowed the rule 
to only currently enrolled students with drug convictions. As of the 
2006-2007 school year, students with pre-college drug convictions are 
no longer penalized.

While the Los Angeles Times reported the stipend covers about $400, 
Wasserman described it as a "symbolic gesture to protest a law that 
we view as unjust." The stipend also serves to show that Berkeley 
students are "putting our money where our mouth is," Wasserman said.

The U.S. Department of Education reported that almost two thirds of 
Americans received aid - be it public or private - during the 
2003-2004 school year.

It is unclear if a similar proposal would pass through Syracuse 
University's Student Association like it did for the Berkeley student 

"If this is what the students wanted us to look into, we could," said 
SA President Ryan Kelly. "We also have to think practically. If you 
bring something to us, we'll fight as long as it's practical."

The passing of such a controversial program warranted research on the 
amendment. Collaboration with the Judicial Board would be necessary 
to ensure no university statutes were being broken, he said.

Critics of the Berkeley proposal disagree with the allocation of 
federal tax dollars to convicted felons, an idea junior history and 
political science major Evan Penayi echoed Thursday.

"If those are the rules, you have to live by them," said Penayi, who 
personally receives aid. "If you want to do drugs, don't do it on the 
(government's) money."

"The university doesn't come off well giving money to convicted 
felons," he said.

In an e-mail, Dean of Financial Aid Chris Walsh said while he 
disagrees with the amendment, SU is obligated to comply. No SU 
students have lost their federal aid because of a drug conviction, he said.

The Berkeley bill, which included co-sponsorship from 10 of the 20 
senators, enables the school to join the ranks of Yale University, 
Swarthmore College, Hampshire College and Western Washington 
University as institutions allowing students deemed ineligible by 
FAFSA standards to receive money.

Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a grassroots organization that 
analyzes the effects of both drug abuse and drug policy on society, 
has been pushing for a reevaluation of the policy since it went into 
affect in 2000. More than 200,000 students have been declared 
ineligible for loans, grants or work-study programs since the bill 
went into effect, according to its Web site.

"This one size fits all policy mandated from Washington takes away 
decision making power from campus officials who know what's best for 
students and their institution," said Tom Angell, campaigns director at SSDP.

"More and more students, experts and even members of Congress are 
starting to realize that this penalty hurts not only the individual 
but society as a whole," he said.

Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, has said he views the 
amendment as necessary tool in the war on drugs. Souder, who is also 
the author of the statute, has stood firmly behind his policy in 
light of all the attention the Berkeley decision has brought to the issue.

On his Web site, Souder explained his position: "A student who knows 
that his financial aid could be suspended if he's convicted of a drug 
crime will be less likely to use or deal drugs in the first place."

Numerous phone calls to Souder's Washington D.C., office went unreturned.

Wasserman, the UC Berkley senator, said he disagrees with the congressman.

"There is no evidence that shows this law detours students from using 
drugs," he said. "What specifics we do have show us that people who 
graduate from college make over two times more in their lifetime than 
people who only graduate with a high school degree."
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