Drug conviction question on FAFSA unfair, ineffective

Staff Editorial

Most Lawrence students rely on the federal grants and loans received from filling out the FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) form. Without this financial aid, many students would not be able to afford a college education. But last week, President Bush decided to enforce a federal law which states that any student who answers `yes’ or refuses to answer the question “Have you ever been convicted of selling or possessing drugs?” will be denied federal financial aid.The box containing the question has been on the form since 1998, but the Clinton administration said they did not rigorously enforce the negative consequences. With the Bush administration, however, things have changed. “The department is bound to enforce the legislation,” said education department spokeswoman Lindsey Kozberg. “Our interest is in appropriately carrying out the intent of the law.”

But what is the intent of the law? It isn’t to keep criminals from entering college. In fact, students who have committed murder, rape, or robbery are still eligible to receive aid. Is the intent of the law to tempt students into lying? Since they cannot abstain from answering, lying would be the only way to get around the question. And students who lie have virtually no chance of being caught. Nearly three million aid applications were turned in last year, and the education department only has the time to audit “some.” During the election, even President Bush was able to abstain from answering whether he had used drugs. “I am asking people to judge me for who I am today,” said Bush in a September 1999 interview. Apparently that answer is good enough to win the White House, but not good enough to receive federal financial aid.

It certainly doesn’t seem that the intent behind the law should be to make students lie. But it also seems that the intent shouldn’t be to keep poor students from attending college, though that is what will happen. “This is not a bill that says we don’t want you in college if you committed certain drug offenses. This is a bill that says we will deny you student aid, by definition it only applies to lower-income people,” said Representative Barney Frank of Massachusetts. Students will lie or suffer the consequences for telling the truth.

If the intent of the law is to stop students from using drugs-which it probably is-cutting off access to education is an odd way of achieving this affect. “It sends a message of government stupidity,” says Eric Sterling, head of the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation, an organization that tries to reform U.S. drug policy. Drug use is often linked to low-income, unemployment, and alienation from society. Turing able minded students away from college will in no way help this situation.

No matter what the intent behind the law is, it isn’t working. This year, about 40,000 applicants have answered truthfully or left the box blank, putting them at risk of losing their aid. Denying federal aid for college students shouldn’t be a means of enforcing drug policy. The question box should be removed.