If you want money for college, just say no

    Are you dependent on financial aid to complete your education here at UCSD? Then don’t get caught with drugs. Under the 1998 revision law to the Higher Education Act, college education for students who are convicted of drug use and are dependent on federal aid will quickly become unaffordable.

    A question box on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) asks students if they have ever been convicted of a drug crime. If an applicant answers “yes,” then this little-publicized federal law delivers serious consequences.

    The law affects students who have been affiliated with drugs in any way, from possession, use and sale to being in the car with someone who was caught with drugs.

    Marisa Garcia, 24, a student at Cal State Fullerton, experienced such consequences firsthand five years ago. Garcia used to smoke marijuana occasionally, for her migraines, but when police found a pipe in her car, she had no marijuana on her and had completely forgotten that the pipe was there.

    “The pipe they found was not in plain view,” Garcia said. “I had it put away somewhere, in a bag in the glove compartment, behind stuff.”

    The police ticketed Garcia and let her go. She went to court one month later, pleaded guilty, and paid a $415 fine.

    One month after her court date, Garcia was deemed ineligible for financial aid due to her drug conviction. With a minimum-wage, part-time job that was not enough to cover tuition, Garcia worried that she would have to drop out of school. Her mother, however, supported her and paid for books.

    “I had no idea how it was going to affect me,” she said.

    Through the academic years 2001-02 and 2003-04, about 20,000 students who were convicted of drug use were denied Pell Grants and 30,000-40,000 students were unable to obtain student loans, according to a report released by the Government Accountability Office last September. The report investigated the effects of the revision on those denied federal aid, such as food stamps, public housing and financial aid for college students.

    UCSD Financial Aid Director Vincent DeAnda has no choice but to accept the law, but he and his staff have long tried to have the law amended.

    “I’ve always thought that was a stupid law,” DeAnda said. “It doesn’t belong on a financial aid application. We were very disappointed with that law getting in there and it’s created a problem with students.”

    The law dictates that any student convicted once of possession loses financial aid for one year. If they are convicted twice, it extends to two years, and the third conviction causes them to lose their financial aid indefinitely.

    Democrats have attempted to repeal the Higher Education Act revision several times, but it is supported by Republicans and a small group of Democrats. They believe that if a student wants to use federal dollars to complete their education, then they should follow the law, and the limited pool of financial aid should go to students who don’t use drugs. Moderates have suggested softening the law so that it only denies financial aid to students with drug convictions that occurred while actually enrolled in college.

    Garcia, however, disagrees.

    “The guy who wrote the law says it tries to help people with drug problems,” she said. “I’ve lived with this law for so long … but I really don’t see how taking away someone’s access to education is helpful in any way — not to themselves, to their family or to society in general.”

    She noted that the law is also unfair to people who may be trying to turn their life around.

    “[The law] includes addicts who have been clean for years, trying to better their lives, and want to go to college, but they’re being told that they’re not good enough,” Garcia said.

    DeAnda said that past mistakes shouldn’t matter.

    “What you’ve done in the past shouldn’t matter if you’ve gotten into the university,” he said. “To get into this school, you have to have a 4.0. You did the work, you got the grades, you did the SATs. What difference does it make?”

    He added that the law mainly focuses on drug crimes and not any other sort of federal offense. It is the only question related to crimes on the FAFSA.

    According to DeAnda, the law is especially unfair because it targets students who depend on financial aid to pay for college.

    “That’s the whole problem: It discriminates against a group of needy students,” he said.

    Dependent students are out of luck unless they complete a drug treatment program, which must be approved by the secretary of education and can cost more than a semester at a public university.

    Garcia said that she looked into rehabilitation programs as a means of getting her aid back sooner. She was not using any other drug, and is completely clean now. However, the least expensive programs still cost more than a semester at Cal State Fullerton. They were six-month, live-in programs, and the only way Garcia would have qualified for any aid is if she’d quit her job.

    “I opted against that,” Garcia said. “I figured if I was going to be paying for something, I was going to be paying for school.”

    Garcia is currently majoring in sociology and wants to work in the drug policy field. She is founder and president of the Cal State Fullerton chapter of the Students for Sensible Drug Policy, an organization currently involved in the Removing Impediments to Students’ Education Act (R.I.S.E.). Currently under debate in Congress, the act is the result of a nationwide effort to eliminate the paragraph from the Higher Education Act that denies students financial aid if they have a drug conviction.

    “It’s just a matter of time before we get it changed,” Garcia said. “We’ve made so much progress, [have] many organizations to back it up, [and there are] so many politicians supporting us. Everyone who looks at it sees the flaws in it.”

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