Law Targets Student Aid for Drug Crimes

By Sanhita Sen
Special to The Washington Post
Tuesday, August 30, 2005

One graduated from Worcester Polytechnic Institute in Massachusetts, the other from Princeton University. Both used drugs including marijuana and hallucinogenic mushrooms. Both were caught.

But where these students' paths diverge -- the first lost his financial aid package and was suspended, the second got a slap on the wrist and continued his studies uninterrupted -- demonstrates how a little-known 1998 federal law exacts serious consequences for some students but leaves others unscathed.

The congressional debate on the measure resurfaced last month in the House and will reach the Senate floor next month. In the meantime, Democrats and Republicans remain far apart on deciding how best to wage the country's largely forgotten war on drugs.

Yakov Kronrod was a first-year graduate student in Massachusetts when he was convicted of possessing and selling drugs. He denied the distribution charge but lost his federal student loans and was suspended for more than two years. It marked a rare blemish on an academic career that boasted a 4.0 undergraduate GPA, several prestigious awards and top prizes at international math conferences.

Kronrod noted that the law targets students such as him who work full time and take out loans to pay their way through school.

"This doesn't affect rich people, because they're not getting aid for school," he said. "If you're white, rich, nice neighborhood, you don't care about this. You could have a murder charge and 12 offenses, and you could just get a lawyer."

Kronrod wanted to continue his education elsewhere, but after his conviction, he realized he could not afford it. The drug provision of the 1998 Higher Education Act ruled out financial aid.

Under the measure, anyone convicted once of selling drugs or twice of possession cannot qualify for federal financial aid for at least two years. A third conviction revokes aid permanently. The law has no effect on students guilty of violent crimes, or students affluent enough to not need aid.

"Going to school is their way of getting back on track," said David Borden, executive director of the Drug Reform Coordination Network, an advocacy group. "This is a second punishment that can intervene with the process of recovery."

In contrast, a recent Princeton University graduate who asked not to be identified said campus police caught him twice with marijuana during college, but he faced only probation as a result. "It's really easy not to get caught," he said. "You just can't be a total moron."

Even if an off-campus court had convicted him, the law would not have affected him because his parents paid his full tuition. Though many Princeton students receive aid, none has ever been affected by the law, partly because of lax campus enforcement.

"We have not been compelled to report any students for drug offenses," said Hilary Herbold, the university's associate dean of undergraduate students. "Students here sometimes do commit drug offenses, but generally they are minor."

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