- The Washington Times - Thursday, April 19, 2001

The Bush administration will enforce a federal law, largely ignored by the Clinton administration, that makes students who have been convicted of drug offenses ineligible for college financial aid.
Congress passed a law in 1998 denying federal money to college students who answer "yes" to a question on financial aid applications asking whether they have been convicted of drug charges. But hundreds of thousands who did not respond to the question were given federal college funds during part of the Clinton years.
Those who fail to respond to the question this year will have their applications rejected.
"Congress passed legislation, and we are trying to responsibly carry out the legislative direction that we have received," said Education Department spokeswoman Lindsey Kozberg.
Education Secretary Rod Paige and financial aid officials decided late last month they would enforce the law beginning with the 2001-02 application cycle, Miss Kozberg said. The cycle began in January.
The law denies federal loans, grants and work-assistance funds for college to those who have been convicted at the federal and state levels of possession or sale of controlled substances, excluding alcohol and tobacco.
Aid applicants who have been convicted of a first offense lose federal financial aid eligibility for one year. A second conviction means loss of eligibility for two years, and a third offense makes applicants ineligible permanently.
Those who have been convicted of selling drugs face even stiffer penalties, but students who demonstrate that they have successfully completed rehabilitation programs can regain their eligibility.
Clinton administration officials say they did not enforce the law because of the backlog it caused in processing federal aid applications when close to a million students failed to answer the question. Response to the question on application forms has since been deemed mandatory, Miss Kozberg said.
Rep. Barney Frank, Massachusetts Democrat, is leading a coalition of House lawmakers who are calling for a repeal of the law. His bill, which has 23 co-sponsors, was filed Feb. 28.
"Someone who commits murder or armed robbery is not automatically barred from financial aid eligibility, but if you have even one nonviolent drug conviction, you cant get any aid for a year," said Mr. Frank, who is calling for more discretion in determining the severity of the offenses and whether students with convictions have taken steps to improve their lives.
"This will help ensure that people in low- to moderate-income families who really need the aid are not treated unfairly," he said.
Terry Hartle, senior vice president of the American Council on Education in Washington, said the drug question is just one of many on a "very long and complicated form." His organization, which represents most major colleges and universities, thinks the law is "trivial and unnecessary."
"I dont believe there was any organized effort to undermine the question, but the complexity of the question itself put the Department of Education in a very bad position," Mr. Hartle said. "They either had to ignore the question or throw out 2 million student loan applications. They opted to keep the student financial assistance system running, assuming correctly that there would be very few people ineligible because of a drug conviction that would be caught."
In 2000, 9.9 million applications for aid were processed and 279,000 students left the drug question blank. Of those students who declined to answer, 7,400 received money for part of the year and 1,745 were deemed ineligible for federal money, Education Department officials said.
Through April 8 this year, 3.9 million aid applications were processed and 11,079 students left the drug offense question blank, even though a new line in the application specifies that a response is mandatory. About 27,000 applicants confirmed drug convictions this year, although determinations on eligibility for many are still being processed and no final decisions have been rendered.
Miss Kozberg said the Education Department notifies those who leave the drug question blank that their aid could be in jeopardy.
Students who are truthful and confirm their drug convictions are not immediately denied aid, she said. They can complete a worksheet to explain themselves. She said students should carefully study the guidelines, including the time frame of the offense, when they apply for financial aid, she said.
"If a student can demonstrate that they participated in a quality treatment program, they are still eligible," Miss Kozberg said. "It doesnt necessarily disqualify them."
c This article was based in part on wire service reports.

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