Law Poses Threat to College Access, Critics Say Lawmakers seek to repeal ban on federal financial aid to students with drug convictionsBy Charles Dervarics
A 3-year-old federal law that bars students from federal financial aid even for minor drug convictions poses a threat to college access for low-income students, perhaps leaving them with few educational alternatives, say critics who are mounting a fight to repeal the statute.“In the roster of counterproductive government sanctions, it would be difficult to top denying a kid the right to apply for a Pell Grant because she was caught experimenting with a few joints,” says Del. Eleanor Holmes Norton, D-D.C., a Congressional Black Caucus member and co-sponsor of a bill to repeal the 1998 law. Under the aid-ban provision, added to the 1998 Higher Education Act Amendments, students convicted of lesser drug offenses could lose aid eligibility for one year. Those with serious drug convictions could lose aid permanently. For the current school year, about 7,000 students were denied aid because of recent drug convictions.Norton compared the strict penalty to mandatory minimum drug law penalties that she says have “wrecked the Black family.” The ban on student financial aid “ensnares young, inexperienced people who are not only the most likely to have minor drug offenses, but also are most open to change if they reach college or another plateau before going down the road to more serious drugs.”She says the ban is most damaging to low-income, minority students, who may simply close the door to college if denied aid. By comparison, more affluent students still may have the family resources to attend college despite a drug conviction, simply because they don’t need federal aid.Two dozen lawmakers are co-sponsors of the repeal plan, introduced by Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass. According to Frank, it’s appropriate to ban financial aid to drug dealers with multiple convictions. But barring aid for a minor drug offense is unfair, he says.“Someone who commits murder or armed robbery is not automatically barred from financial aid eligibility,” he says. “But if you have even one nonviolent drug conviction, you can’t get any aid for a year, with longer bans for people with additional convictions.”Frank says the bill simply would restore past policy that gave officials discretion not to award aid based on the severity of a person’s crimes.Student groups and some financial aid administrators already have questioned the effectiveness of the aid ban, often for different reasons. Student groups claim the proposal is a too-strict penalty that may deter youth from higher education, while administrators say colleges may lack resources to monitor and enforce the provision.In fact, colleges expressed such strong concerns about paperwork burdens that the federal government opted not to require colleges and universities to ask current or prospective students about past drug-related matters. Instead, the government asks the question through financial aid applications, including the Free Application for Federal Student Aid used to assess eligibility. In the first year of implementation, many students failed even to answer the question about past drug use, though the federal government did not penalize those who left the question blank. Now, however, the Department of Education has said that students could face delays in processing aid if they do not answer the question.Moreover, of the 7,000 applicants denied aid because of past convictions, 1,311 were ruled ineligible. The remaining 5,617 must complete a waiting period before their eligibility is restored. Along with Norton and Frank, other co-sponsors include CBC members such as Reps. Donald Payne, D-N.J., and Chaka Fattah, D-Pa. The bill will go to the House Education and the Workforce Committee.
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