House Anti-Drug Measure Could Affect Student Aid

As both Gov. Michael S. Dukakis and Vice President George Bush campaign on the need to wage an effective "war on drugs," several bills are pending in Congress which would deny federal aid to colleges and students unless they are deemed drugfree.

Support is growing in Congress for legislation which would strip federal financial aid from students convicted of using or selling illegal drugs. The House has already passed several versions of a provision that would allow the government to cut off aid to recipients of federal contracts or grants whose employees are convicted of using or selling drugs at work.

And Democratic leaders in the House are backing another anti-drug proposal that is more specific about the conditions under which colleges and other recipients of federal funds could lose money. The bill would require employees whose work was supported by a federal grant or contract to sign a statement that they would not abuse drugs on the job and to notify their employers within five days if they were convicted of doing so.

Higher education officials say they oppose the provisions of the pending legislation. They charge that such measures represent election-year politicking and would fail to have any substantial effect on the drug problem.

Furthermore, they say that the legislation would be unenforceable since the government does not keep a comprehensive list of people who have been convicted for drug-related offenses, making it impossible for colleges to check whether a student aid applicant has a record of drug-related offenses.


But while supporters of the legislation admit that it will not solve the drug problem by itself, they say it sends a powerful signal that drug abuse will not be tolerated.

"The government has got to give a signal that an individual takes a risk using drugs, and that he cannot expect thepublic to subsidize [such use]," said an aide toRep. Thomas Coleman (R-Mo.), who hasunsuccessfully sought to insert an anti-drugstipulation into a House bill on GuaranteedStudent Loan default.

Harvard officials said they disagree with thepending legislation, because it is not anappropriate way to combat drug abuse. "I thinkit's misguided," said Director of Financial AidJames Miller. "It is a lot of election-yearpolitics, and it's tough for a congressman tooppose" such anti-drug legislation.

Miller said that this was the type oflegislation that "looks good [to voters] and wouldbe virtually unenforceable."

"It's unclear whom this is targeted to," saidan aide to Rep. Augustus F. Hawkins (D-Ca.), whochairs the House Education and Labor Committee.Hawkins and most members of his panel have opposedthe anti-drug measures involving higher education.The aide said that if the purpose of this legislation was todeter potential abusers, the message of "`Don't dodrugs or you'll lose your Pell Grants' is silly."

"As an institution, we have not really figuredout precisely who we are targeting or what we areafter [in the war on drugs]," the aide said.

College officials and some lawmakers also saidthe proposals are unfair because studentsconvicted of more serious crimes face no suchrestrictions in obtaining federal aid.

"Under current law, people are convicted of anyoffense and, while they are in jail, don't havetheir federal aid cut off, and we don't see whydrug abusers should be singled out," said CharlesSaunders, vice president for governmentalrelations at the American Council on Education(ACE).

College officials have an unusual ally inopposing the bill--Secretary of Education WilliamJ. Bennett, who in the past has criticizedcolleges for not doing enough to combat drug abuseon campus.

A spokesman for Bennnett said that it would bebetter to help colleges enforce their ownanti-drug policies than for the federal governmentto become involved. The Education Department iscurrently working with officials from about 20universities to establish voluntary standards theycould adopt to reduce drug abuse on campus, hesaid.

"We really don't think that [denying aid tostudents convicted of drug abuse is] a good idea.No proposal that has been made has at all beenable to take into account situations in whichsomeone got involved in drugs, served some time,and yet was straight as far as drugs areconcerned" by the time he or she went to college,said Loye Miller, Bennett's press secretary.

College officials said they also oppose theprovisions of the legislation requiring employeesto sign statements that they will not use drugs onthe job. They questioned the legality of such astipulation, saying that a pledge might poseconstitutional problems if the courts interpretedit as requiring self-incrimination.

"It begins to smell a little like a loyaltyoath, and that bothers me," Harvard's Miller said.He noted that federal law already requires allcolleges and universities to have a comprehensivedrug policy in place in order to receive federalfunds.

But Saunders said that the ACE wouldn't objectto similar provisions that did not directly punishuniversities or departments for their employees'potential drug use.

"We don't see why higher education should beexempted from federal workplace provisions,"Saunders said. "Colleges have a reponsibility tomake it clear that drug use in the workplace won'tbe tolerated.