Drug conviction can revoke aid

Tim Paluch

An illegal drug conviction can cost a college student more than a night in prison; it can put their entire college future in jeopardy.

A little-known provision to the federal Higher Education Act of 1998 states that a college student convicted of the possession or sale of a controlled substance will lose his or her federal financial aid eligibility for an interval of time, depending on the severity of the offense.

Loras Jaeger, director of ISU’s Department of Public Safety, said last year the number of drug violations on campus drastically increased.

In 1998, Jaeger said DPS charged 36 people with drug offenses. The number dropped to 30 in 1999, but increased to 54 in 2000.

“That’s quite a jump,” he said.

Jaeger said that in addition to DPS, the Central Iowa Drug Task Force handles drug cases on campus. County-wide figures also are going up, he said.

Earl Dowling, director of the office of financial aid, said his office processes 26,000 financial aid applications yearly, and the law has affected one student so far.

The number could increase next year, he said, when students must disclose drug convictions on their renewal FAFSA.

“The student’s drug history is checked against governmental records, and if there is a drug violation, the U.S. Department of Education will notify us,” he said.

Iowa State’s financial aid office was opposed to the law, Jaeger said, because of the way financial aid applications are used in the process.

“The reason Iowa State University discouraged it was because of a long standing position that we should not use the financial aid application for anything other than determining financial aid eligibility,” he said.

The Higher Education Act of 1998, including the financial assistance/drug offense law, passed in the U.S. Senate 96-0.

Kimberly Cass, press secretary for Sen. Charles Grassley, R-Iowa, said Sen. Grassley fully supports the provision.

“Sen. Grassley feels that financial aid is a privilege, and when you break the law you can forfeit that privilege,” she said.

Sen. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, also voted for the bill, on the condition that a student who went through a treatment and counseling program would be able to reapply for aid, said Seth Boffeli, Sen. Harkin’s deputy press secretary.

“Sen. Harkin thinks that drugs are a real problem, but if someone . makes a mistake and goes through the necessary rehabilitation programs, they should be given a second chance,” he said.

The rehabilitation provision isn’t enough for critics of the law, including Ben Stone, director of the Iowa Civil Liberties Union. Stone called the law “vicious, counterproductive and racist.”

“If you’re poor, you need financial aid to go to college,” he said. “Poor people and people of color are going to be devastated by this because they are going to be barred from being able to go to college. They’re the ones that get targeted by the war on drugs, and they’re the ones who get caught.”

Stone said the legislation is another example of what he called “the new Puritanism.”

“Politicians are trying to cleanse the world of vice, and they are doing it to the people who are less likely to complain about it,” he said.

Stone compared the law to an ISU rule enabling university officials to contact parents of a college student caught with alcohol.

“You get to be 18, you go to college, and all of a sudden you’re not an autonomous adult, you’re a child in the eyes of the Legislature and the school administrators,” he said.

The financial assistance/drug offense law is another drug policy gone wrong, Stone said.

“Drug use is a health issue, not a criminal issue,” he said. “We’ve criminalized self-abusive behavior, and we’re making criminals out of people who are not.”

Students who use illegal drugs are at a greater risk of being caught in the future, Jaeger said, because patrolling efforts on campus are becoming more efficient.

“The task force is more [seasoned] than they were a few years ago,” he said, “thus they target the distribution of drugs more efficiently than they did when they first started several years ago.”