By Lisa Grzyboski
The Pitt News (U. of Pittsburgh)
PITTSBURGH (U-WIRE) - College students may want to think twice before taking a hit of heroin or a puff of pot, because it may soon mean saying goodbye to their federal financial aid.
Under next year's higher education bill, currently in a House/Senate conference committee, Congress is looking to suspend federal financial assistance for college students convicted of possessing or selling marijuana or other illegal drugs.
"Taxpayers have a right to know that students who have a drug abuse problem aren't using tax dollars to go through school," said U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., the prime sponsor of the provision. "Any time you go into the public treasury, the public has a right to hold you accountable."
More than 40 percent of undergraduates attending public universities and more than half of private school-goers working toward their bachelor's degrees rely on some type of federal aid to complete their education, according to statistics from the U.S. Department of Education.
Under Souder's provision, the severity of punishment would depend on the number of prior offenses as well as the nature of the crime.
A first offense for drug possession would suspend a student's federal aid for one year, while a second offense would bring a two-year suspension. A third conviction would result in indefinite suspension.
By successfully completing a rehabilitation program and testing negative for drug use twice in random tests, students would be able to re-gain aid eligibility more quickly.
Souder said the punishment is meant to send a warning to America's young people that, if they experiment with drugs, there will be consequences down the road, but not everyone agrees with the bill's tactics.
"Philosophically, we don't like the notion that if you need the financial aid, then the drug standard applies to you, and if you don't need financial aid then it doesn't apply," said Jacqueline King, director of federal policy analysis for the American Council on Education, a Washington, D.C.-based group that represents hundreds of colleges and universities throughout the nation.
"College campuses are not going to know who has been convicted of drugs and who hasn't unless the student voluntarily gives them this information," King said. "Are universities supposed to do some huge background check? It's just very confusing and this provision doesn't make it clear how institutions are supposed to figure this out."
While Souder said he sees the problems and concedes the provision may take awhile to be implemented, he disagreed with critics who suggest there are no solutions.
"My feeling is that these are universities and this is the United States, and people are tracking every type of information under the sun here," he said.
Both the House and the Senate have overwhelmingly approved the higher education bill, which includes the drug provisions, and Souder is on the conference committee that will produce the final draft for President Clinton.