NCPA - National Center for Policy Analysis

Student Aid And Drug Convictions

April 25, 2001

The new Bush administration has decided to pursue a strict interpretation of a law that would deny federal student financial aid to anyone convicted of a drug crime. That policy has drawn both praise and criticism.

  • Some 26,000 people appear ineligible for such aid for the upcoming school year with a little more than a third of the expected applications in hand.
  • The length of ineligibility varies according to the gravity of the offense and the number of convictions -- with a single conviction for marijuana possession, for example, disqualifying a student for a year from the date of conviction.
  • People involved in crimes that don't involve drugs are eligible for aid -- no matter how serious their crime.
  • The law was passed in 1998 and went largely unnoticed because the Clinton administration was uncertain as to how to enforce it.

Officials from both the Clinton and Bush administrations say the difference in enforcement efforts stem not from a divergence in philosophy, but from confusion. In an effort to comply with the law, the Clinton Education Department in 1999 added a new question to the federal financial aid application for the 2000-2001 academic year, asking about drug convictions.

Of the 9.8 million applicants, only about 9,000 acknowledged having a drug record. They were denied aid. But 279,000 applicants left the answer blank. The department decided to award aid to them after it concluded the question had been poorly worded.

On the 2001-2002 application, the question was reworded to read: "Do not leave this question blank. Have you ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?"

The Bush administration has decided to deny aid to all who leave the question blank. As of April 8, some 11,000 applicants had failed to answer the question and more than 15,000 had admitted to a conviction.

Source: Daniel Golden, "Tougher Bush Stance on Obscure Law Hits Students Seeking Aid," Wall Street Journal, April 25, 2001.

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