You remember question No. 28 on the 2000-01 FAFSA form, dont you?
The question about whether you had any previous drug possessions or convictions. If youre anything like me, that particular question did not stick out any more than the other seemingly endless bombardment of FAFSA questions. As a matter of fact, I was just happy to see a ques0tion that did not require me to study my mothers W-2 forms for an answer.
However, for thousands of students seeking financial aid for college, question No. 28 caused a detour off of the road toward a higher education - because of the 1998 Higher Education Act.
The act states a person who has been convicted of possessing an illegal drug is barred from receiving federal financial aid for a year after one offense, two years after a second offense and permanently after a third offense.
A person who is convicted of selling an illegal substance has to wait two years after the date of a first-time conviction and is permanently barred from receiving federal financial aid if he or she has more than one conviction.
When I first heard about this law, I was not too bothered by it. I had not been convicted of any type of crime - let alone a drug conviction - and none of my friends who were applying for school had any drug convictions, either.
Besides, who cares if drug dealers and users whose drug peddling and usage has been detrimental to our society dont get money for college?
However, opposition to the act has been growing and becoming more vocal, so I finally stopped to listen and realized it had some good points.
First of all, the law is just as heavy-handed with minor drug offenses, such as possession of a small quantity of marijuana, as it is with more severe drug offenses, such as possession of large amounts of cocaine.
Also, this law only penalizes people who have committed crimes that involve illegal substances, while people who have committed other serious offenses such as armed robbery, rape or even murder are not automatically barred from financial aid eligibility.
However, it can be argued that while those crimes do happen on college campuses, they are not as prevalent as drug use and abuse by college students.
Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., who wrote the bill, says the law is a way to deter students from using or selling drugs and to encourage abusers to get treatment - but the bill will also deter students from going to school.
Furthermore, alcohol usage by underage students is even more common than drug usage by students, so why doesnt the law address that issue?
In addition, the law only penalizes the poor - the people who are most likely to be in need of financial aid - while rich students with drug convictions go unaffected by the law.
Sounder defends the law by saying financial aid is a privilege, not a right. But even Sounder must be having second thoughts about the fairness of the law. He has stated he would support an amendment that would make it so that only students convicted of a drug offense while receiving federal financial aid will become ineligible to receive this aid.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., also wants to amend the current law in order to allow for discretion to bar aid to people based on the severity of their crimes. Frank has the support of Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, the Drug Reform Coordination Network and more than 70 university student organizations.
I believe a combination of both of the proposed amendments is needed to make the current law for deterring minor drug offenders from being unable to receive aid.
Ashley Bell, a journalism freshman, can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.