Attempts to ease federal ban on granting aid to students with drug conviction stalled

Friday, December 28th 2001, 12:00 am
By: News On 6

Efforts to ease a ban on federal financial aid for college students with drug convictions have reached an impasse.

So far this school year, more than 43,000 would-be college students face the possible denial of financial aid under a law passed in 1998. The chief lobbying group for colleges and universities would like the ban repealed, as would students on nearly 200 campuses who have organized to fight it.

Federal officials said they had hoped to ease the ban through administrative action but could not find a way. They said it is up to Congress instead to amend the law.

``We looked in every nook and cranny,'' Education Department spokeswoman Lindsey Kozberg said.

The department reads the law as saying anyone with a prior drug conviction may be ineligible for aid.

But Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., the author of the law, said the Bush administration is being tougher on applicants than he intended. He said he wanted the ban to apply only to students already getting federal aid when convicted.

Souder's staff met repeatedly this year with Education Department officials to try to bring enforcement in line with what he says Congress intended. Earlier this month, the government told Souder it couldn't do it.

In reply, the congressman accused the Bush administration of a ``simply shocking'' defiance of Congress and threatened to hold oversight hearings.

Kozberg said the department is ready to help Souder fashion a change he can give to Congress.

Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., already has introduced repeal legislation. But when Congress might take up the issue is unclear, especially with the country engulfed in the war on terrorism.

The ban involves a small fraction of the more than 10 million people who annually fill out the application for federal grants, work-study money or U.S.-subsidized loans. Question 35 asks: ``Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?'' Those who answer ``yes'' get a second worksheet asking for details.

For a first drug-possession offense, ineligibility lasts a year after conviction; for a second offense, two years. More convictions bar aid indefinitely. But a single drug sale conviction means no aid for two years afterward; more convictions and the ban lasts indefinitely.

Those facing loss of aid indefinitely can, however, get that lifted by undergoing drug rehabilitation.

Of 9.8 million aid applicants so far for the 2001-02 school year, 43,436 were either turned down for all or part of the year, or risk automatic denial for not answering the question.

The American Council on Education, representing major colleges and universities, has blasted the restriction as ``double punishment'' and complained that it discriminates against poorer people, since more affluent ones do not need financial aid.

``Far more serious crimes do not carry the automatic denial of student aid,'' said Terry Hartle, senior vice president. He said he is not trying to minimize drug abuse, but ``we wouldn't care if the whole provision went away.''