Collateral damage

April 28, 2002

HERE'S A wrongheaded tactic in the war on drugs: Let's slam the door to financial aid on young adults who have made a mistake but now want to get ahead, maybe even turn their lives around.

Let's teach them to live clean by throwing a roadblock in their access to higher education, the gateway to higher income and -- we all like to assume -- a better quality of life.

Four years ago, when Congress passed a law denying federal aid to students convicted of drug crimes, the intent was clear: Scare those kids into stopping their drug use. Now, as enforced by the Bush administration, the result is less than savory:

Of more than 10 million applicants for financial aid in 2001-2002, an estimated 15,600 students were denied partial or full support for drug-related convictions. In addition, applicants for federal school aid who skipped or overlooked the question about drug convictions -- another 10,000 students -- may yet face sanctions.

Financial aid administrators don't know how many students -- including adults who'd like to return to college to better themselves -- might give up their dreams because they made a mistake that keeps dogging them. This is their main objection to the law: It will deny some students a chance to make good on the potential of their lives after an early misstep.

But the law is patently unfair on many other levels. First, it levies a penalty only on those students whose families can't afford on their own to pay for college. They are, in effect, punished first by a judge, and then again by financial aid enforcers. Rich kids who get busted for drug possession don't face this double-whammy. If you are the president's daughter or niece and you get into trouble, your college career isn't likely to depend on federal loans or grants.

Second, it makes drug-free living the gold standard for financial aid. Commit date rape? Rob a bank? Vandalize, riot, assault, murder? These are not threats to the federal tuition assistance on which a student may depend.

This has prompted student protests across the country, and efforts by some institutions to thwart the law's intent. This month, Yale University took a stand by announcing plans to reimburse some students whose academic careers are threatened by the loss of federal aid. Some financial aid administrators say their universities haven't taken a position, but that they'll "do what's in the best interest of the student" if federal aid is denied.

The national organization representing financial aid administrators has called on Congress to repeal the law. Even the law's original sponsor, Republican Rep. Mark Souder of Indiana, wants to tone it down so that it does not prevent admission to college but applies more specifically to students already in school and getting tuition aid. Students already in school can earn back the right to financial aid after completing a rehab program.

Certainly, young people who break drug laws must pay a price, but should it be this price? For those who can't otherwise afford college, it becomes a dream deferred.

After adopting such a tough stance, it will be hard for elected officials to backtrack and do the right thing, but they must. We'll never win the war on drugs if our good intentions produce bad policies.

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