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."
Minor or not, drug offenses have cost more than 160,000 less fortunate students their federal financial aid since the law took effect.
Democrats have tried to repeal the measure several times, but Republicans and a handful of other Democrats have rebuffed them. Rep. Robert E. Andrews (D-N.J.) offered an amendment last month when the House Committee on Education and the Workforce reauthorized the higher education bill but lost on a bipartisan vote. Both he and fellow New Jersey Democrat Rush D. Holt argue that education best deters drug abuse.
"Even hard-core drug prevention crusaders should want people to get educated," Holt said. "If you believe in education, if you actually think that education leads to improvement, then why in the world would you want to deny education to people who are doing things you don't approve of?"
Andrews plans to push for a vote on the floor, but he acknowledged that he faces serious obstacles. Ideological arguments aside, repealing the drug provision would cost the federal government millions of dollars in additional aid.
"The American public is tired of subsidizing people who break the law," said Rep. Mark Edward Souder (R-Ind.), who originally wrote the provision. "They shouldn't have to pay for spoiled kids doing drug crimes."
But Andrews said the decision to bar a student from financial aid -- and subsequently an education and a job -- should be made "on a case-by-case basis by a judge who knows the specific facts." Democrats have also argued that the law unfairly targets drug offenses compared with more violent crimes.
"Why should a joint be worse than a murder, which under this law it is?" said Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.). "Under that law neither Al Gore or George Bush would have been eligible for financial aid. Fortunately for both of them, they didn't need it."
Souder said it makes sense to focus on drug use because it is disproportionately high on college campuses, while rape, murder and other violent crimes are not. But critics say the law has failed to deter drug use, because most students don't even know the law exists.
"The government has done nothing to publicize it, other than include it on the financial aid form, but that's often too late," Borden said. "And no one thinks they're going to get caught."
In many cases, students do escape consequences. Another recent Princeton graduate, who also asked not to be identified, sold marijuana and other drugs from his room to more than a dozen customers a week, netting $500 to $1,000. Two years ago, only one main seller served Princeton undergraduates, he said, but now he can name at least four.
Despite being caught with drugs, he has never faced serious consequences.
Students who lose aid because of a drug conviction can regain it by attending a drug treatment program, but such a program must be approved by the secretary of education and can cost thousands of dollars -- often more than a semester at a public university.
Though many of the students affected by the law are charged with minor offenses such as marijuana possession, Souder said students should find treatment regardless of expense.
"I don't have a lot of sympathy for you," he said. "If you want to go to school on your own money, fine. If you want tax dollars, then follow the law."
Kronrod considers himself fortunate. "I did have my undergraduate degree when this happened," he said, noting that most affected students do not. "Now I'm working at a nice tech company. I'm going to pay for myself to go back to school."