You can murder, maim and molest and still get federal financial aid for college. But get caught smoking a joint, and you have to pay your own way; if you can afford it, that is.
The Bush administration has stepped up efforts to enforce a relatively new law that suspends financial aid to anyone convicted of any drug crime, felony or misdemeanor, state or federal. Those convictions can range from smoking marijuana to dealing hard narcotics.
That's right, you could be sitting next to a convicted pedophile in Psych 101 whose tuition is paid for from federal financial aid, but not next to your best friend, who was caught by police taking Ecstasy at a dance club.
For this school year, an estimated 34,000 students and college applicants across the country will be denied financial aid because of drug convictions, nearly a threefold increase from last year, when less than 10,000 were denied aid, according to the U.S. Department of Education.
The suspensions have caused students across the country to organize in opposition, and they have the support of the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU), the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the Criminal Justice Policy Foundation and the National Council for Higher Education.
"This measure is denying one of the basic principles of empowerment in this country: education. It is taking away that opportunity, and people do not react favorably to that attitude towards the problem," says Jody Widenhouse, who last fall helped organize the local chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy at N.C. State University (NCSU).
The national student organization, based in Washington, D.C., has local chapters on 148 universities and high schools.
"This issue in particular ... is forcing people to deal with the nonsense politics of the drug war," Widenhouse says.
Since the 2000-01 academic year, students have been losing financial aid eligibility by way of the "drug free student aid" provision of the Higher Education Act.
The provision was put into practice during the last school year and denies student loans, federally funded grants and scholarships, and work assistance to drug offenders.
Students can regain the assistance after a minimum one-year suspension, but only after completing a rehabilitation program that adheres to federal guidelines as well as agreeing to submit to random drug testing.The Case of Chris Spurry
Activists are citing one student in particular as a victim of the law.
Chris Spurry was convicted in June 1999 for possession of marijuana.
Seventeen months later, in December of 2000, Spurry had just finished his first semester at Arkansas State University, where he was studying for a bachelor's degree in biology and an associate's degree in elementary education.
Then he got a letter from the university. He was no longer eligible for financial assistance and would have to pay $800 for tuition for the next semester if he wanted to continue his studies.
"I couldn't believe it at first," Spurry says. "I paid for my offense. I had to give up my (driver's) license, pay fines."
Spurry — who is married with children — dropped out before classes resumed. "With three children, I can't afford to go to school without that aid. I just can't do it."
Says NCSU activist Widenhouse: "This only shows people what the drug war is doing: It is taking away opportunity and punishing people for their crimes more than once."
A Question of Fairness
The "drug free student aid" measure is the brainchild of Congressman Mark Souder, a Republican from Indiana. In 1994, Congressional Quarterly named him one of the four most effective "conservative true believers" in Congress.
He is also one of the more passionate voices dealing with issues about illegal drugs.
"Unless we all work together ... we are going to continue to lose many more of our young people and adults to the scourge of illegal narcotics," Souder said from the House floor in defense of the law.
In 1998, Souder mustered enough support from his colleagues to amend the federal Higher Education Act to ban financial aid for students with drug convictions. Two years later, the law took effect.
"Federally subsidized student aid is a privilege, not a right," Souder wrote in an op-ed column last year in USA Today. "Is it unreasonable to expect college students ... to refrain from using and selling drugs or risk losing that aid?"
The Higher Education Act was established in 1965 as one of President Lyndon Johnson's "Great Society" initiatives. It created federal programs such as the Perkins and Plus Loans, Pell Grants and work-study programs.
The goal was to provide enough financial assistance to those unable to afford college to have the financial resources necessary to attend school and seek a degree.