Students Find Drug Law Has Big Price: College Aid

May 3, 2001

By Diana Schemo at The New York Times

Correction Appended

WASHINGTON, May 2— When a judge pronounced Russell Selkirk guilty of smoking marijuana in a car in December 1999, Mr. Selkirk, a freshman at Ohio State University, thought he left the courtroom knowing his sentence: a $250 fine, suspension of his driver’s license, 20 hours of community service and a year’s probation.

But a month later, when Mr. Selkirk applied for financial aid for the coming academic year, he faced another sentence, loss of eligibility for low-interest federal education loans and grants. ”I was amazed,” said the student from Cincinnati. ”It’s like two penalties for the same crime.”

In the next few months, there are likely to be tens of thousands more students in Mr. Selkirk’s situation. Under a law passed in 1998, but that is being fully enforced for the first time by the Bush administration, students convicted on drug charges become ineligible for federal financial aid and loans for one year after a possession conviction, or for two years after a conviction for selling drugs, unless they undergo a rehabilitation program that includes two random urine tests. Repeat offenders can face permanent loss of federal assistance to attend college.

No other crime carries such a provision. Gov. Gary E. Johnson of New Mexico, who has sponsored state legislation to decriminalize possession of small amounts of marijuana, said, ”You can rob a bank, you can commit murder, just about any other crime and not be denied student aid, but a drug charge would deny you student aid.”

Others complain that the law is biased against the poor, who rely on the aid, and blacks, who make up a disproportionate percentage of those arrested on drug charges. While about 13 percent of the people taking illicit drugs are black, the same as their proportion in the general population, blacks represent 55 percent of the drug convictions, said David Borden, executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network.

”There’s every reason to believe there will be some racial disparity in the way this law operates,” Mr. Borden said. ”It’s a second punishment that only affects those who qualify for financial aid.” His organization is hoping to raise $100,000 for a fund to help students who are denied financial aid under the new law.

Of nearly 10 million financial aid applications filed last year, 9,200 students lost financial aid for college for part or all of the academic year because of the law. Another 279,000 left the question blank, and were given the aid anyway, prompting complaints that the Clinton administration was punishing some students for their honesty.

The Department of Education is now instructing students that answering is mandatory, and will deny aid to students who ignore the question. With about half of all financial aid applications for the coming school year already filed, roughly one-half of 1 percent of students have left the question blank, while 33,000 students needing financial aid have acknowledged a drug conviction.

The growing numbers of students likely to see their help for college denied have set off a wave of organizing in opposition to the law. Nearly 60 student governments have passed resolutions against the law, many of them complaining that it unfairly punishes students in financial need, while wealthier students with drug records face no retribution.

Officials at the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities have criticized the law, and the association representing financial aid officers has taken a stand against it.

Shawn Heller, who began Students for a Sensible Drug Policy as a student at George Washington University, said 90 chapters of the organization had opened on college campuses, with another 200 in the works, thanks in large measure to student anger over the law.

Mr. Heller noted that in last year’s presidential election, Al Gore acknowledged smoking marijuana in college, while on the campaign trail, President Bush declined to answer questions about whether he had used cocaine and other drugs, saying, ”When I was young and irresponsible, I was young and irresponsible.”

Mr. Heller said, ”If you’re president of the United States of America, you don’t have to answer these questions, but if you’re coming from a poor family and are trying to get an education, you do.”

The law’s sponsor, Representative Mark Souder, Republican of Indiana, said the bill was intended to hold students receiving federal financial aid accountable and ensure that they did not become involved with drugs.

”If my son goes to a party and he doesn’t have the courage to say, ‘No, I don’t want to smoke a joint,’ he can say, ‘No, I could lose my student loan,’ ” Mr. Souder said. ”It’s not actually a good example, because my son is not on scholarship.”

Mr. Souder said he was troubled that the Department of Education had been applying the law retroactively to any aid applicant with a drug conviction in the last couple of years. ”As an evangelical Christian, why would I ever propose something that does not believe in redemption?” Mr. Souder said.

Harvey Silverglate, co-director of the Foundation for Individual Rights in Education, predicted that the law would galvanize campuses, and focus the attention of the middle class on the drug war in a new way.

In February, Representative Barney Frank, Democrat of Massachusetts, reintroduced legislation to repeal the law. He predicted new support for repeal in the coming year, when thousands more parents find their children denied aid.

Photo: Russell Selkirk, whose drug conviction cost him federal college aid. (Kevin Fitzsimons for The New York Times)

Schools: The Ohio State University