- The Washington Times - Friday, August 17, 2001

The U.S. Department of Education may revamp the way it interprets and enforces a federal law that bars student aid to applicants who have been convicted of drug sales or possession.
Under the 1998 law, a part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, close to 40,000 college students with drug convictions could lose student-loan eligibility this fall.
The department is considering softening the statute by applying it only to those students who had drug offenses while in college, rather than convictions before they started school.
Rep. Mark Souder, the Indiana Republican who wrote the original law, now is leading the charge to limit its scope. He has been meeting with Education Department officials in recent weeks about reducing the effect of the law on students.
"We are confident that this is gong to happen and they are going to change the way the regulation is enforced," said Seth Becker, Mr. Souder's press secretary.
"It really goes back to his basic philosophical and religious beliefs," Mr. Becker said of the congressman's initiative. "He's an evangelical and he really believes in the concept of redemption. For him to look at the regulation and see that someone who has made mistakes in the past but has completely turned their lives around is still being denied federal aid — it goes against his fundamental beliefs."
Mr. Souder has said that under his interpretation, the statute was meant to apply to students who committed drug offenses while they were receiving federal money for their education, not before.
Jane Glickman, a spokeswoman for the Education Department, confirmed yesterday that discussions with Mr. Souder were continuing, but said no agreement on changes had been reached.
"We don't have any projected date or time frame about changing the drug regulation at this time," Miss Glickman said.
In April, the Education Department announced it was cracking down on enforcement of the student aid law, which first took effect last year.
It was largely ignored under the Clinton administration amid concerns that the wording of the law was confusing and that the workload of investigating would hold up aid to those students who legitimately qualified. The law applies to federal grants, work study funds and student loans.
At the behest of Congress, Education Department officials earlier this year changed the wording on the student loan application that asked students about prior drug offenses.
Students who declined to answer the question and left it blank on the form, the department warned, would be immediately dropped from aid consideration.
Those students who were able to demonstrate that they had successfully completed drug-rehabilitation programs, however, could retain their aid eligibility, the department said. Students who admit on the forms that they have drug convictions can complete a follow-up worksheet that allows them to explain their circumstances.
Close to 280,000 students left the drug-offense question blank on the 2000-01 application, according to the Chronicle of Higher Education, which first reported the department's negotiations with Mr. Souder.
The current law states that student-aid eligibility will be revoked for one year for a first-time drug conviction and two years for a second conviction. A third drug conviction would disqualify a student for federal aid indefinitely.


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