|Act Retracts Financial Aid From Marijuana Users|
Posted by CN Staff on October 03, 2005 at 06:58:07 PT|
By Hilary Stohs-Krause
Source: Daily Nebraskan
Nebraska -- Rape. Murder. Drunk driving.
None of these crimes will cost college students their Pell Grants, but walking down the street with a joint could. As of July 1, 2000, a provision in the Higher Education Act mandated that students’ eligibility for federal financial aid be suspended if they are convicted under federal or state laws of offenses involving the possession or sale of controlled substances.
The Web site detailing the act defines a controlled substance as illegal drugs, not including alcohol or tobacco.
The length of suspension of financial aid ranges from one year to indefinite, depending on the number and type of convictions.
“I think it’s a joke,” said Colin Priebe, University of Nebraska-Lincoln senior secondary education major. “If someone has three DUIs they wouldn’t lose their scholarship, but someone caught with less than an ounce of marijuana would lose theirs.”
Kay Dinkelman, associate director of scholarship and financial aid, said the office uses a worksheet to determine the aid eligibility of students with drug convictions.
“If you completed an acceptable drug rehabilitation program,” she said, “you might be eligible again.”
Out of the almost 16,000 UNL students who filled out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) last year, only three were initially barred from receiving aid for drug-related charges, Dinkelman said.
A question included on the FAFSA asks applicants if they have been convicted of a drug-related crime. Those three students answered yes to the question, Dinkelman said.
Eventually, only one student didn’t receive aid, while the other two were found eligible, she said.
Dinkelman said the number of UNL students ineligible for aid because of drug convictions has never exceeded 10.
Between 17,000 and 41,000 students nationwide were denied federal student loans from 2001-2004, according to a report published by the Government Accountability Office. That translates to between $100 million and $164 million in lost loan amounts.
Figures from UNL and GAO don’t include students who didn’t apply because of previous convictions.
One of the most common controlled substances used by college students is marijuana, said Sgt. Tyler Schmidt of University Police.
A short-term affect of the drug is heightened senses, said Bob Schroeder, coordinator of alcohol and drug services for the University Health Center.
“For example, many people report that music sounds much better when they’re high, or they have a very high need for Twinkies, something like that,” he said.
The high a person experiences lasts up to an hour, he said, and it impairs reaction time, perception and judgment.
Long-term effects include dependency, lower immune system, impaired thinking ability, loss of motivation, lung problems and possibly cancer.
Schroeder said marijuana use by UNL students falls below national averages for college students. According to a 2004-2005 university-wide assessment conducted by the UNL Bureau of Sociological Research, between eight and 12 percent of UNL students had used marijuana in the past month.
According to data compiled by the Bureau of Justice Statistics in the U.S. Department of Justice, 19.3 percent of all college students reported using marijuana in the last month of being surveyed in 2003.
Tom Workman, assistant director of student involvement, said drug use at UNL is low for a variety of reasons.
“One, it’s illegal,” he said. “Two, I think it has an awful lot to do with a stigma we have in this country for drug use versus alcohol use. It’s just not seen as a college drug. Three, many drugs are incredibly expensive. It’s very hard to maintain a cocaine or heroin addiction on most college incomes.”
When caught with controlled substances, UNL students face consequences from state and federal laws and university guidelines.
Matthew Hecker, director of student judicial affairs, said his office handles any situation that violates the Student Code of Conduct – including student drug use.
Hecker said a low number of drug cases come before the University Judicial Board, the court overseeing student conduct violations. The board heard 41 cases last school year, and a total of 82 cases have come before the court during the past three years.
“To me, I feel like that’s a low number, given that fact that we have 21,000 students,” he said. “That’s a fraction of a percent. Now do things go on that we don’t know about? Probably. But those are numbers we can point to with real pride given the size of our institution.”
Those found guilty by the court are usually given a standard set of sanctions, Hecker said, such as completing a one-on-one drug education and information class through the University Health Center and performing community service, in addition to possibly losing their financial aid.
“These are the typical sanctions for somebody who is in possession of a very small amount,” he said. “This is not the case for someone who’s distributing it.”
Students selling drugs on campus would most likely be suspended, Hecker said.
He doubted the Higher Education Act’s drug provision is keeping UNL’s numbers low because laws don’t always deter dangerous behavior.
Although reported marijuana use by UNL students is already low, Workman said the provision could help other schools struggling with drug use. The law aims to help students eliminate their harmful behavior, he said.
Drug use shouldn’t be the only factor considered for federal financial aid, Workman said, but the line had to be drawn somewhere.
“If the goal is to get people into treatment to fight drug addiction, then any effort to get people to treatment is a good thing,” he said. “It’s not meant to be punitive, it’s meant to be motivational.”
But Schroeder said the best way of approaching student drug users is to help them receive education funding, rather than deprive them of federal aid. The provision also fails to separate between students’ consistency of use.
“A lot of students who have a violation do not have a serious problem,” he said. “The best way to approach these students is to help them rather than deprive them of funds for their education. They don’t differentiate between someone who just got caught once and someone who may be a heavy user or even a dealer.”
Cathi Biba, junior English major, said the existing drug provision is fair, but financial aid eligibility should consider other crimes as well. Students breaking federal laws should not receive federal money, she said.
The provision has many side effects beyond the classroom, said Bruce Mirken, director of communications for Marijuana Policy Project, a advocacy group based in Washington, D.C. He said the law targets students from low-income families.
“If you’re rich, you’re not going to be affected by this,” he said. “It only affects people who really have to struggle sometimes to even go to college.
“It’s just an absurdity that somebody caught with a joint can lose their student aid, but somebody who commits rape might not.”
Congress is examining this issue.
According to the U.S. House of Representatives Committee on Education and the Workforce Web site, the committee approved amending the Higher Education Act on July 22 so students who receive drug convictions before enrolling in college would still be eligible for financial aid. The House has not yet voted on the bill.
However, the U.S. Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions failed to adopt an amendment to repeal or revise the drug provision at a Sept. 8 hearing, according to the committee’s Web site. The bill is currently waiting to be voted on by the Senate.
But students are fighting back. A national organization, Students for Sensible Drug Policy, formed in 1998 to ensure that punitive drug polices don’t impede students’ access to education.
“When this provision passed, it really sparked rapid growth of our group as more and more students found out about this policy and that the war on drugs directly targeted them,” said Tom Angell, the group’s campaign director.
Angell said more than 175,000 students have lost financial aid since the law was first implemented, a number significantly higher than the GAO’s estimate.
“We think (the provision) is a harmful hurdle on the path to education and recovery,” he said. “Blocking access to education will do nothing to solve our nation’s drug problems, only make them worse.”
Hecker said community standards were the more effective methods of preventing drug use while Schmidt said awareness was the best way to minimize drug use.
Schmidt said various UNL groups – Association of Students of the University of Nebraska, University Housing and Panhellenic Association – assist students with drug-rated questions.
Education should be a top priority for university officials, Dinkelman said, as well as U.S. policymakers.
“Personally, it would seem as if a student who is filling out a FAFSA and wanting to attend college … would be a positive step,” she said, “so we want to try to avoid putting obstacles in a student’s way.”
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