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Up in Smoke

Financial aid application the newest front in the war on drugs



Marisa Garcia's FAFSA (Free Application for Federal Student Aid) application was no different than almost 700,000 others filled out in 1999. When Garcia's mom mailed in the form, to obtain aid for her daughter to attend Cal State Fullerton, Question 28 was left blank.

It read: If you have never been convicted of any illegal drug offense enter '1' and go to question 29.

"I don't know if she didn't see it or what," Garcia said.

Last February nearly 200,000 Free Applications for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) were returned to students because the applications were considered "incomplete." Like Marisa, some 193,324 applicants had left the same question, Question 28, blank. Those student aid applications were kept in limbo, flagged by an electronic marker. The Department of Education (DOE) sent Student Aid Report "C flags" to computers all over the nation.

Question 28 was left blank by some students because it did not apply to them, because there were implications of injustice or because some simply did not understand the question. But some left Question 28 blank because they had been convicted, and any level of drug conviction could cost a student his or her aid.

For college-bound students, FAFSA is the key to accessing public money for a higher education. Pell Grants and direct and federally guaranteed student loans are awarded based on the information provided.

At the end of March, 1999, the number of students opting not to answer the question had grown to 402,093; by the summer 715,000 FAFSA applications had no response to Question 28. (Over nine million students applied for Federal Aid in 1999-2000.)

With so many people leaving the question blank the DOE was in a tight spot; the usual policy is no payment on an incomplete form.

"So many people were not answering it [Question 28] that the DOE decided they were not going to stop people from getting paid," said Doug Nelson, financial aid counseling coordinator for University of Colorado at Colorado Springs. Nelson received a DOE memo dated February 24, 1999, outlining the DOE's position. The DOE placed the cause on forgetfulness.

Records from UCCS show 392 students originally left the question blank; 209 of those applications still have no answer for Question 28. Nelson confirmed that those students are getting paid. Twenty-three left it blank at Colorado College and there are still 281,879 Question 28s not answered nationally. As of now, those funds will not be automatically withheld.

Early in the year she applied, Garcia could have put a 1 in the box and simply gone on to number 29. But between the time when the application was originally sent and Garcia next heard from the DOE, she was convicted of a misdemeanor marijuana possession charge. The police found a pipe with some residue in her car.

"It wasn't like I had a whole bunch of drugs with me," Garcia said.

This was Garcia's first offense; she plead guilty and paid $415 in fines. Garcia received no community service and no court order for rehab.

But along with a half-million others applying for federal student aid at the same time, she got a form in the mail informing her that she must answer the question she formerly left blank. The form said in bold: "If you have a drug conviction you must answer this question."

Garcia then talked with a representative of the DOE and that person informed her that a ticket is a conviction. "The man said that I had to answer yes to the question," said Garcia.

Garcia lost federal aid for one year from the date of her conviction, March 6, 2000.

Like many students Garcia didn't know that she would lose her aid. She found out that the only way out from under the provision was to go to a government-approved rehab program. The drug treatment programs she looked at were six months long and she would have to be unemployed to get financial assistance to pay for the treatment. "I don't feel that I even have a drug problem," Garcia said.

Now, Garcia disagrees with the law. Hinting at double jeopardy, she said, "It's taking education away from people for [doing] something that they have already paid for."

Garcia also did not know that she could get away without answering the question or simply lying. As the law is written, there is no enforcement policy. "I thought, 'I have to answer it; you can't lie to the government,' " Garcia said.

The DOE has no drug conviction database to check the answers against. "We're not going to go around and dig up criminal reports on students," said Lisa Cain, spokesperson for the DOE.

On April 28, 1998, Congressman Mark Souder, a Republican from Indiana, testified to his colleagues on the "scourge" of illegal drugs in America. He held the floor for 45 minutes. Souder's office did not return calls to clarify his position, but his floor testimony clearly identifies financial aid as a new front for the war on drugs. Souder talked about Colombian heroin and the use of AWACs to shoot down smugglers' planes, and declared the need to abolish needle exchange. He attacked medical marijuana. And at the end of his speech, Souder talked about an add-on to the FAFSA drug policy.

"It was not done to protect you, it was done to punish you. It was done so Souder could say, 'See how tough I am on drugs,' " said Steve Silverman, Director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network. The DRCNET was formed in direct response to the FAFSA drug provision.

Congressman Barney Frank thinks that the current provision is over the top considering that crimes of equal or greater stature do not receive the same retribution. "He [Souder] thinks that you can terrorize people to make drugs go away. I don't think that is the right approach," said Frank, sponsor of 1999 legislation to repeal the 1998 law.

Congressman Bobby Scott of Virginia debated Souder about the closing of the loophole this June. Last May, specific language was added by Souder to stop students from leaving Q 28 blank. The language was clear and to the point: "A student who fails to answer the question on the FAFSA is ineligible for aid until the question is answered." If Souder's version passed, the no-answer option would be all but closed.

On the floor that day Scott said, "Two years ago we came up with another misguided policy: If you have been convicted for the possession or the sale of drugs you also forfeit your opportunity to turn your life around.

"The unanswered question is who is actually being affected by this law. ... The provision sounds counter-productive if your goal is to help young people get educated. The only people who will be affected by the law are those who will need the federal aid," Scott said.

Marisa Garcia fits that profile exactly. With one brother at UC Irvine, Marisa in school and another brother entering college next year, the financial pressure on her mom's single-parent income is extraordinary. With her suspension, Garcia, who kept her California state aid, says she has $8,000 less in federal money.

For now, those thousands who left Question 28 blank can make it through the year. The election year is in full swing and Scott doubts the issue will be resolved before next session. "It will depend on who wins [the election]," Scott said.

Meanwhile, the fight against the provision is growing. Twenty-eight student governments have signed policies against Question 28. A Washington, D.C.-based lobbying group, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDS), now has representatives on 25 campuses around the nation.

Meanwhile, the 6,053 students who have lost all or some of their aid have to do their time again, waiting out their suspension or going through a rehabilitation program. A conviction for possession will get them 12 months of suspension time from the aid program; that doubles for a two-time offender. Distribution garners 24 months with the possibility of more suspension time.

Many students will have to drop out, but Garcia has stayed in school. She got a job, borrowed book money from her mom and is determined to make her money last until March.

"If I can get my aid back next year, I will be OK."

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