WASHINGTON — College students convicted of illegal drug possession could get federal financial aid for the first time in more than a decade under legislation aimed at overhauling the student loan system.
The bill, which a House of Representatives committee approved recently and which the full House probably will consider after its August recess, says that those convicted of selling illegal drugs still would be barred from receiving federal financial aid.
However, students convicted of possession would be able to get loans, grants and work-study assistance.
"People who have been convicted of a drug crime are punished through our criminal justice system, which is entirely proper," said Melissa Salmanowitz, a spokeswoman for the Education and Labor Committee.
"Doubling a person's punishment — outside of our criminal justice system — by not allowing them needed financial aid to obtain a college degree is not only wrong, it's double jeopardy."
The provision, estimated to cost $24 million from 2011 to 2019, would overturn a 1998 law authored by Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind.
"I believe that students who are dealing or abusing drugs probably aren't making the most of their educations," Souder has said. "It's one thing if they are going to do it with their own money" — or if their parents pay — "but it's something else to ask the American taxpayer to fund this kind of behavior."
Supporters of the change have another argument: They say the current law unfairly targets minorities and hurts a person's chances of rehabilitation.
"There's an overwhelming disparity towards convicting people of color," said Kris Krane, the former executive director of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, an advocacy group. "Plus, students of color tend to rely on financial aid more than white students." The law doesn't do anything to prevent drug abuse, he added.
To Souder, however, the law is a deterrent.
"A student who knows that his financial aid could be suspended if he's convicted of a drug crime will be less likely to use or deal drugs in the first place," Souder said.
The new provision is part of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which passed the House Education and Labor Committee on July 21. It would increase the maximum Pell Grant, the primary federal need-based scholarship, and end the private sector's role in student loans. Instead, the government would be the sole provider of student loans.
As of 2006, nearly 200,000 students who'd been convicted of drug charges — about 1 percent of students across the country — had been denied student aid under the law.
It's unclear how many students the change could affect. The Department of Education doesn't have a foolproof way of checking to see whether someone lied about a drug conviction on a financial aid application, and many students with drug convictions don't apply for federal aid.
All but three of the committee's 30 Democrats voted for the bill. Rep. Jason Altmire of Pennsylvania joined the panel's 19 Republicans to vote no, and the two other Democrats didn't vote.
Under current law, students convicted of possessing illegal drugs are ineligible for federal aid for one year for first offenses, two years for second offenses and forever for third offenses. Those convicted of selling are barred for two years for first offenses and forever for second offenses.
In February 2006, Congress softened the law so that it would affect only those who were convicted of possessing or selling drugs while they were in college and receiving aid. Before, the law applied to prior convictions.
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