A lie college students might want to tell.

The state of the universe.
April 13 2006 7:19 AM

Just Check No?

A lie college students might want to tell.

In 1998, Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., an advocate of stringent drug laws, slipped into a House bill an amendment denying federal financial aid for college to anyone who had been convicted of either selling or possessing drugs. No congressional committee voted on the amendment. But it passed as part of the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, first enacted in 1965 to create federal financial aid for college students.

In 2004, the group Students for Sensible Drug Policy asked the federal government to give it a state-by-state breakdown of the number of students denied aid as a result of Souder's amendment. The Department of Education demanded $4,124.19 for the information. SSDP asked for a fee waiver, arguing that releasing the information was in the public's interest and that the group is a cash-strapped nonprofit. The agency denied SSDP's request, arguing that releasing the data could lead to drug legalization. Public Citizen backed SSDP in court. The New York Times editorialized on its behalf. The federal government blinked. On Wednesday, the Department of Education gave SSDP the state-by-state numbers. Here they are.

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If this law betters the lives of young people—Souder calls it a way to reduce youth drug use by reducing demand—then no state has done better than Souder's own Indiana. As of August 2005, nearly 9,000 Indianan students—one in 200—have been denied aid since the law passed. That's the highest proportion of students affected in any state by a wide margin. (Click here to see where your state ranks.) A week ago, when the Department of Education released preliminary data, I started calling Martin Green, Souder's spokesman, for a comment on Indiana's stellar showing. He has not returned my calls.

There's another funny thing about the Department of Education's numbers: They don't show the number of college applicants punished for drug convictions. They show the number punished for owning up to drug convictions. On their financial-aid applications, students are asked to check a box if they've been convicted of selling or possessing drugs. But the department has no way to verify students' answers. Officials can cross-check the answers with federal arrest records, but they make up a very small percentage of all drug convictions.

So far, about 190,000 students across the country (and abroad) have told the truth and been denied financial aid. It's impossible to know how many lied and headed off to college, federal aid in hand. Nearly 300,000 student-aid applicants, however, simply ignored the question in 2000-2001, the first school year in which it was asked. After internal debate, the Clinton administration decided to give all these students a pass. (A fitting verdict, perhaps, given Clinton's own equivocal response to questions about drug use.)

The Bush administration reversed this "ask, but don't tell" policy. Beginning in 2001, applicants who have refused to say whether they've been convicted of a drug crime are presumed guilty and bounced from the aid pool. That year, the number of students denied aid quintupled.

When Souder's amendment came up for reconsideration last year, its opponents couldn't muster the votes to get rid of it. They settled for a change that denies federal aid only to students caught getting high while in college. That bill was signed by President Bush as part of the Deficit Reduction Act of 2005. But its future is hazy; it's tied up in court because the House and Senate versions differed slightly. Whatever its fate, the government still won't be able to verify much about a student's drug record. Which means they'll catch fibbing students only if they've had the unusual misfortune of being convicted of a federal crime. A word to the wise, and the not-so-wise: You may want to just check "no."

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