Bush considers enforcement of financial aid drug conviction law

Thursday, March 1st 2001, 12:00 am

By: News On 6

WASHINGTON - People who fail to answer a drug conviction question on their federal college financial aid applications may be denied the money.

Hundreds of thousands of applicants who did not answer the question were not automatically denied aid during the Clinton administration, despite a law saying they should have been. Bush administration officials said they are reviewing that policy.

``We're 95 percent certain that the Bush administration will not let people get away with not answering the question,'' said Dave Borden, executive director of the Washington-based Drug Reform Coordination Network, which opposes a policy change.

The legislation that took effect last July withheld grants, loans or work assistance from people convicted, under federal or state law, of possession or sale of controlled substances.

A first offense possession conviction makes a student ineligible for aid for one year after the date of conviction and a second offense for two years. A third possession conviction results in indefinite ineligibility. Regulations are tougher for drug sale convictions.

``Someone who commits murder or armed robbery is not automatically barred from financial aid eligibility,'' said Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., who introduced a bill Wednesday to repeal the law. ``But if you have even one nonviolent drug conviction, you can't get any aid for a year.''

Frank's legislation will be a tough sell. His attempt last year failed, and there's no indication sentiment has changed.

A spokeswoman for Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who sponsored the law, said he's ``more hopeful about the Bush administration enforcing this as intended than the way the Clinton administration implemented it.''

Of 9.6 million federal aid applicants for the 2000-01 school year, 836,360 did not answer the question. They were sent letters instructing them to do so. Most answered no and their applications were processed, but 8,620 answered yes and were denied. Another 278,205 never responded, but their applications were not automatically rejected, according to the Education Department.

Whether those applicants will be denied aid has not been decided, Education Department spokeswoman Lindsey Kozberg said.

``All of the department's policies, rules and regulations are under review ... as part of the transition,'' she said.

Critics say the law wrongly punishes students who are honest and most in need of aid. A conviction by itself is enough price to pay, they contend.

``The class disparity is built into the law,'' Borden said. ``You cannot be wealthy and affected by this law. If you didn't qualify for financial reasons, then you're just punished one time for your drug offense. If you need the financial aid, you can be punished a second time by this law.''

Education officials acknowledge they have little defense against a dishonest answer to the drug conviction question since checking every application is not feasible. However, they do conduct random audits.

The department attempted to increase responses to the question by adding a line to the 2001-02 application instructing applicants that they must answer.

The change seems to be working. Of nearly 1 million applications submitted since Jan. 1, only 4,500 did not answer, and more than 5,000 acknowledged convictions.


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