Scholarships to Aid Students With Drug Records
WASHINGTONOpponents of a 1998 law that denies federal aid to thousands of college students with criminal drug records are trying to work around the law by offering financial help to those affected. A coalition of drug-law reform groups last month inaugurated a scholarship for those denied aid because of drug records. The John W. Perry Fund scholarships honor a New York police officer who decried the war on drugs and died saving people in the World Trade Center on Sept. 11. In the same vein, two colleges — Hampshire College in Amherst, Mass., and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania — are offering loans or grants to such students. Critics have assailed the law since its inception. The higher education lobby — whose members range from student activists to college presidents — says the ban unfairly hits some of the people who need aid most, noting that affluent students with drug records don’t need federal aid. Even the law’s author, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., says it’s misinterpreted. He meant to bar aid only from students already getting federal aid when convicted, and last month proposed amending the law to make that clear. The application for federal student aid asks applicants, among other things, “Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?”Those with one drug-possession offense are ineligible for federal college aid for one year after conviction. A second drug-possession or first drug-sale conviction means ineligibility for two years. More convictions bar aid indefinitely, unless the offender undergoes drug rehabilitation. By early March, 47,063 of the 10.5 million federal aid applicants for this school year face possible denial of aid for all or part of the year, or risk automatic rejection for not answering the conviction question, the U.S. Education Department says. Among the first 2 million aid applicants for next school year, 9,448 are at risk. Hampshire College, after a campus-wide vote, three years ago created a loan for any student there denied federal aid because of a drug record. No one has tapped it yet, a spokeswoman said. Hampshire President Gregory Prince does not condone drugs but calls the ban “part of a larger pattern of the discriminatory impact, intended or not intended, that the drug policy has had on different communities, particularly minority communities.” Last month, the governing board at Swarthmore College voted to make up the difference if any of its students can’t get federal aid because of a drug conviction. The action hews to a school policy ensuring students’ financial needs are met, a spokesman said. The Perry Fund is organized by the Drug Reform Coordination Network (DRCNet) Foundation. For more information visit the organization’s Web site <www.drcnet.org>.
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