An ill-thought assault on high education

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Given the can-you-top-this attitude that has surrounded the U.S. government's drug policy for the last two decades, it's not surprising that conservative lawmakers are now having to go out on a limb to prove their anti-drug resolve. In the last few years, that's translated into much-maligned components such as mandatory minimum prison sentences and a nearly $20 billion annual budget for the "war on drugs," the spending of which has done little to stop America's substance-abuse problem or even substantially reduce access to recreational drugs.

But in keeping with that old adage "If at first you don't succeed, try, try again," Congress has kept the new laws coming. And if the latest is any example, this is just another step on the road toward the ridiculous.

In 1998, Rep. Mark Souder, a Republican from Indiana, snuck an amendment into the Higher Education Act to delay or eliminate federal grants or loans for students who have a recent drug-related conviction. The amendment, which goes into effect July 1, suspends loans for one year for students with one possession conviction, two years for two convictions, and permanently for three or more. For those with a conviction for selling drugs, the punishment is stricter: One conviction equals a two-year delay, and two mean an indefinite suspension.

The logic, according to the bill's backers, is simple: Taxpayers shouldn't finance the education of students who break the law. Moreover, how much can someone really learn when they're stoned?

At Florida colleges and universities, there are 188,086 students receiving federal Pell grants annually, for a total of $318.6 million. At the University of Central Florida, the financial-aid office says, roughly 40 percent of the 32,000 students enrolled receive federal student aid of some kind. Last year, there were 18 drug-related arrests on the campus, and 155 arrests made by the Orange County Sheriff's Office in the university's vicinity (based on addresses, it can be safely estimated that at least a quarter of these are UCF or local community college students).

But even before it takes effect, the bill is already becoming an enforcement headache. The U.S. Department of Education has been largely ambivalent about the provision; specifically, it has neither the manpower nor the will to do background checks on each of the millions of applications that come in each year. That leaves them with question No. 28 on the application form, which simply asks applicants if they're eligible for federal money.

Just last month, calculations indicated that 11 percent of the 5 million processed applications arrived with that question left blank, leaving lawmakers with a dilemma: Do you assume that these students have something to hide, or do you assume that they didn't understand the question? (There is, after all, an entire worksheet that tries to explain the eligibility requirements.) In May, lawmakers opted for the latter, saying that applications with question No. 28 left blank would not be delayed.

And, say financial assistance officials, there is no way of checking on those who say they are eligible -- thus leaving enforcement to either students' consciences or an empty threat of punishment for lying on an application. As of May, only 3,000 applicants had indicated on the form that they were ineligible.

But even if one assumes that all of the potentially hundreds of thousands of students who could be affected by this amendment are fully truthful on their applications, the bill is still fraught with problems, not the least of which is its selectivity.

Basically, a student with an armed robbery or even a murder conviction can still receive federal aid, while a kid arrested for possessing a gram of pot can't. That may sound like a far-fetched hypothetical, but it's absolutely true. "It's completely wrong-headed," says Drug Reform Coordination Network campus coordinator Steven Silverman. "It doesn't take away aid for a hard-alcohol problem."

Indeed, the bill treats a student caught with a joint the same as it treats a heroin junkie (the only way for a drug convict to be eligible for aid is to complete a rehabilitation course), but ignores the more heavily used legal drug -- alcohol.

More troubling, say the bill's opponents, is the de facto racism that goes along with the bill. Because the measure is based on drug convictions, they say, it will target minority students: While blacks constitute 13 percent of the population -- and studies have shown they also comprise the same percentage of drug users -- 55 percent of drug convictions are levied against them. Thus, the bill will have a greater impact on minorities.

Common sense suggests it also will impact the poor more so than the well-off, simply because to a student from a lower-income household, the loss of federal grant money could mean an end to his or her education, while their more affluent counterparts would be able to make up that money more easily.

With those problems in mind, Rep. Barney Frank, a Massachusetts Democrat, authored a bill to repeal that portion of the act. If a student has a drug problem, says Frank spokesman Peter Kovar, then the last thing the federal government should be doing is cutting him or her off from education and eliminating that student's chance to turn his or her life around.

The effort galvanized student support. Organizations like Yale University's student government and the Association of Big Ten Students have joined with the Drug Reform Coordination Network and Students for a Sensible Drug Policy to support Frank's bill.

With the ever-so-tough-on-crime Republicans in control, however, Frank's bill went nowhere.

Nationwide, there's no real way of knowing in advance how many students will be affected until the measure takes effect -- though some estimates put that number near a million.

But since the beginning of the university system, says Silverman, "Kids have been experimenting with their bodies in untold ways, end up getting their degrees, growing up and becoming, say, president of the United States."

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