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Senate Acts To Lift Bar On College Aid

Ft. Wayne Journal Gazette, Dec. 22, 2005

Sylvia A. Smith, Washington Editor

WASHINGTON – Students with drug convictions in their pre-college years will no longer be cut out of the $67 million federal pool for grants, loans or work-study assistance.

Students will lose all or part of their eligibility for federally subsidized aid, however, if they are convicted of drug offenses while they are enrolled at a college or university.

A 100-word section in a sweeping budget bill approved by the Senate on Wednesday changes the student aid provisions – written seven years ago by Rep. Mark Souder, R-3rd – that blocked assistance to students with drug offenses committed at any time in their lives.

That included, for instance, any adult who embarked on a college career a decade or more after a high school-era drug conviction and who had a clean record since then.

Souder has maintained for years that the original intent of the law was to withhold federal aid from college students who sold or possessed illegal drugs, not punish someone for an offense committed before enrolling in college. He said faulty interpretations by the Clinton and Bush administrations led to an overly broad application.

Souder was out of town and could not be reached Wednesday. But in a conversation Monday, he said if the Senate passed the budget bill, he would consider the student loan changes one of his major accomplishments this year.

Statistics about how many students have been affected by the provision since it went into effect for the 2000-01 academic year are difficult to come by. An organization that has campaigned against the Souder law since its inception – Students for a Sensible Drug Policy – says 182,000 students have been ruled ineligible for student aid as a result of their answers on an application that asks about drug convictions.

But the group said because of the way the Department of Education collects the data, it can’t be certain that all those students were ineligible solely because of their drug offenses.

The group praised the change as 'a major victory' and claimed credit for the change.

'Only because of the years of sustained pressure by student activists did Congress reform this disastrous law,' the group’s legislative director, Erik Cooke, said in a blog entry shortly after the Senate approved the budget bill. He said, however, the entire provision should be repealed.

The ban involves a small fraction of the more than 10 million people who annually fill out the application for federal grants, work-study money or subsidized loans.

For a first drug-possession offense, ineligibility lasts a year after conviction; for a second offense, two years. More convictions bar aid indefinitely. But a single drug-sale conviction means no aid for two years afterward; more convictions, and the ban lasts indefinitely.

Those facing loss of aid indefinitely can, however, get that lifted by successfully completing a drug rehabilitation program.

The budget bill that includes the change was approved by the House last week before being sent to the Senate. Because the Senate made some changes, the legislation will have to go back to the House for another vote before it is sent to President Bush for his signature.

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