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Question Regarding Student Drug Use Returns in FAFSA Debate

Shortening the seven-page student financial aid form is on everyone’s wish list for higher education. Despite this, before any students can reap benefits, federal leaders first may have to revisit an often thorny issue: whether to ask students about recent drug arrests.

Added to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) during the last reauthorization in 1998, the controversial question has harsh critics who argue that it prevents low-income youth from righting themselves and attending college. But many lawmakers are wary of repealing the provision for fear of appearing soft on drugs.

The conflict spilled out in the U.S. Senate debate this summer on the Higher Education Access Act, a proposal that would cut $18 billion in student loan subsidies and redirect much of the funding to need-based aid. In approving the measure, the Senate’s education committee included language to repeal the question.

More conservative voices prevailed by the time the bill reached the floor, as the Senate approved an amendment supporting the provision.

“That was definitely a setback,” said Tom Angell, government relations director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), referring to the decision on the Senate floor.

Yet supporters of the current FAFSA question note that it gets specifically to the issue of drug convictions for possession or sales.

“The application has a question that I think makes all this relevant: ‘Have you ever been convicted’ is the question,” said Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-S.C..“It needs to stay on.”

Those who answer ‘yes’ to the drug conviction question face a variety of penalties. A conviction for simple possession carries a one-year ban on aid; a second conviction extends that to two years; a third conviction leads to indefinite loss of eligibility.

A first conviction for drug sales means two years ineligibility for aid. Failing to answer the question also makes a student ineligible.

SSDP says about 200,000 students have lost access to aid since the provision’s enactment. The organization also reported that the provision disproportionately affects students of color. Other groups that have favored a repeal in the past include the NAACP, the National Council of La Raza and the National Association for Equal Opportunity in Higher Education. The United States Student Association filed suit in 2006 claiming that the drug question was unconstitutional because it warrants a second punishment for those already convicted of a crime. A U.S. District Court judge, however, upheld the provision last fall.

The drug question is No. 31 on the current financial aid form. Students are to say “yes” if they have had convictions while in college; they do not need to report convictions removed from their records, including those occurring before the age of 18.

Overall, the FAFSA application includes nearly 100 questions on family education and finances.

Instead of a seven-page form, the Senate’s legislation calls for a two-page “EZ FAFSA” for use by most students. The plan proposed by Sen. Edward Kennedy, D-Mass., contains provisions to shorten the current application but it keeps the drug question.

Student groups now say they will move to the House of Representatives, where they believe they may find a stronger base for a repeal. Angell noted that Rep. George Miller, D-Calif., is a past co-sponsor of legislation to repeal the drug conviction question.

Some Congressional Black Caucus members have also been vocal in seeking a repeal of the drug conviction question.

“I’ve always had a problem with that [question] because upper-income students who get convicted can continue their education, but if you actually need student aid, you lose your education,” said Rep. Bobby Scott, D-Va., at a House education hearing.

The House is likely to take up the issue when it proposes an HEA renewal bill as early as this fall, according to Angell. “We expect that the House bill will have repeal language in it.”

In the past, repeal legislation has broken down largely along partisan lines, with most Democrats supporting a repeal and most Republicans against it. But while Democrats now control the House, the question’s chief proponent, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., is still a force in the House on the issue. Souder’s staff did not return calls for comment.

Angell notes that a repeal of the question is sometimes a tough sell to lawmakers.

“Repealing the question is not a pro-drug decision,” he says.

Congress returns to work this month, but Miller’s committee is likely to turn first to renewal of the No Child Left Behind Act. No HEA hearings are yet scheduled.

–Charles Dervarics

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