A ban on giving federal aid to college students with drug convictions could mean more than 34,000 people will be denied loans and grants in the coming school year more than triple those turned away in 2000-01.
The increase reflects a clarification in the U.S. Education Department's aid application, which screens for people with drug records. But the change has brought louder protests against the law: Even the measure's author says enforcement has been taken too far.
U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, an Indiana Republican, intended the aid ban to apply only to college students already getting loans or grants when convicted, an aide said.
Instead, education officials in the Clinton administration and now under President Bush are denying aid to people with previous drug convictions. Souder is trying to get them to change their enforcement efforts to match his intent, said Angela Flood, Souder's chief of staff.
U.S. Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has introduced a bill seeking the law's repeal. Repeal is also the aim of the fledgling Students for Sensible Drug Policy and its 140 campus chapters.
Higher education leaders are protesting, too.
The law is "fundamentally flawed," and amounts to "double punishment" and bias against low-and middle-income students who must undergo screening while their wealthier peers do not, the head of the American Council on Education wrote in May to U.S. Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark. Hutchinson is Bush's nominee to run the Drug Enforcement Administration.
The council is "concerned that this provision will prove to be an insurmountable obstacle to far too many students, causing many of them to abandon their hope of a college education," Stanley Ikenberry wrote on behalf of 13 groups, including the nation's major associations of colleges and universities.
The education agency is only doing what Congress asked, said Lindsey Kozberg, Education Department spokeswoman.
"Consistent with the department's overall position, we seek applications from students that are complete and accurate, so we can provide aid to as many eligible students as possible," she said.
The law, approved in 1998, bars federal grants, work-study money and U.S.-backed and subsidized student loans to anyone convicted of selling or possessing drugs.
For a first drug-possession offense, ineligibility lasts a year after conviction; for a second offense, two years. More convictions bar aid indefinitely.
The law is tougher on traffickers. A single drug sale conviction means aid ineligibility for two years; more than that and the ban is indefinite. Aid can be restored if a student undergoes drug rehabilitation.
Enforcement starts when an applicant fills out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, or FAFSA. Question 35 on the 2001-02 aid form: "Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?"
A "yes" brings a second form in the mail, asking for details to determine if the aid ban applies in this case.
Those who fail to answer question 35 are asked again. If they still don't answer, aid is automatically denied.
Phrasing on last year's form confused people: "If you have never been convicted of any illegal drug offense, enter '1' in the box."
Even after a follow-up letter, 279,098 people left the box blank. Federal officials blamed their flawed question, and granted aid to those who didn't answer. After consulting with focus groups, they changed the question to make it clearer.
A total of 9,548 people were still denied aid in the 2000-01 cycle, but they were the applicants who admitted to having drug convictions.
This year, the government expects 10 million aid applications. Among 6.8 million so far, 34,096 will likely be denied student aid, officials said.
While 21,993 disclosed a drug conviction making them ineligible, another 12,103 failed to answer the drug question.
Unknown is how many the law scares off.
"Many people will not apply because they're not eligible, or they think they're not eligible," said Corye Barbour, lobbyist at the United States Student Association. "We don't have any way to estimate them."
One is Todd Howard, a 32-year-old store clerk in Louisville, Ky.
With a high school diploma and some computer training, he's eager to advance. But the $15,000 he needs for a two-year college program is out of reach. So is a federal student loan.
Howard said he has two misdemeanor convictions for marijuana possession, one from 1996, the second this month. Howard said he has quit using the drug, and feels it's irrelevant to his college plans.
"Ask me if I pay my loans back," he said. "Ask me if I would finish the course. Ask me if I would go out and try to get a job once I finish the courses."
He'll wait two years to become eligible for aid. It would be wrong to enter rehab just to get the money. "I don't think it's right," Howard said.