Bill limits financial aid restrictions

    As lawmakers finalize an omnibus collection of higher education proposals in Congress, they will decide whether to restore federal financial aid to students who were disqualified for past drug convictions under a 1998 law.

    While the opposition to the original provision is not new, student advocates have recently found an unlikely ally: Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.), who authored the law.

    Under current guidelines, the U.S. Department of Education automatically denies aid to students who admit to having criminal drug records on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Students who fail to answer the questions regarding records are also denied aid.

    “The language of the [Higher Education Act] does not distinguish between convictions that occur before and after the student applies for, or receives, federal financial assistance,” said Jane Glickman, a department spokeswoman.

    Since it went into effect, more than 150,000 students became ineligible for aid because of the law, according to Scott Elhers, the outreach director for the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform, a group opposed to the provision.

    Although debate over interpretation has ensued since the law’s approval, Souder has joined the calls for reform. Unlike CHEAR and other groups that would like to eliminate the restriction, Souder said it is being applied incorrectly and was never meant to punish students for past wrongs.

    “When [Souder] wrote the bill in 1998, the intention was that students who receive taxpayers’ dollars have a responsibility to obey the law, and students who are using drugs while they’re at school are not demonstrating that they value their education,” said Martin Green, press secretary for Souder. “However, [Souder] and the Congress were upset at the outrageous fashion the Clinton administration had interpreted the amendment. We’ve been working since 1998 to get it corrected.”

    Department officials also continued to interpret the aid restrictions to deny aid for past convictions under the Bush administration.

    A provision included in the current proposal for the HEA reauthorization spells out that students will only lose financial aid if they are convicted of a drug offense while enrolled at school, Green said. Congress is expected to vote on the final bill later in the fall or in early 2005.

    “The Department of Education under the Clinton administration was responsible for writing the regulations that enforce the law, but they had misinterpreted what Congress had intended,” Green said. “The amendment referred to students who were already enrolled and receiving aid, not applicants. So a drug conviction four years ago is not supposed to affect the eligibility for a student newly applying for financial aid.”

    The new bill will also emphasize that the ineligibility period is temporary. Students who complete a drug rehabilitation program and successfully pass two unannounced drug tests will again be able to receive funding, he said.

    CHEAR is opposed to the new bill, arguing that the changes will not fully address the innate flaws of the policy.

    “We feel that the [current proposal] does not go far enough, and still means that a lot of students will be left out of receiving financial aid and forced to drop out of school,” Elhers said. “The drug provision has a greater impact on poor and middle class students and racial minorities, who tend to have higher rates of drug convictions for a variety of factors. That is why full repeal of the drug provision is needed.”

    CHEAR has backed a bill by Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.), which seeks to repeal the HEA drug provision completely. The bill has been introduced three times in past years, but failed to pass. Frank’s current bill, however, has gained 64 congressional co-sponsors and has launched a student-led nationwide campaign against the drug law by a group called Raise Your Voice.

    The Drug Reform Coordination Network and the Students for Sensible Drug Policy have also endorsed the campaign.

    “We welcome the possibility for more students to be able to attend college with the financial assistance that they need,” Elhers said.

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