WHEN THE HIGHER Education Act was reauthorized in 1998, Rep. Mark Edward Souder -- the Indiana Republican whose favorite pastimes include trying to disembowel the District's gun safety laws -- co-sponsored an amendment that would strip students of federal loans if they were convicted of possessing or selling drugs. Eligibility could be taken away for one year, two years or indefinitely, depending on the type and number of convictions. Since the law went into effect, it reportedly has had an impact on about 160,000 students.
Now Mr. Souder says that the law has been misinterpreted and that it was intended to apply only to offenses committed while the student was receiving federal aid. The latest reauthorization bill -- out of committee and waiting to be placed on the House calendar -- has been amended to fix the ambiguous wording.
Two key problems with the original provision remain. First, drug offenses are still singled out. Without a doubt, the convictions that warrant indefinite disqualification -- two for drug dealing or three for possession -- are very serious. Murder, rape and arson, however, are awfully serious crimes as well, yet those felonies do not result in automatic ineligibility for federal student aid. The other concern is one of equity. Students whose parents can afford to pick up the tab without federal assistance would be able to stay in school, essentially unaffected by the sanction, while students from low-income families -- and even some from middle-class families -- would probably be forced to drop out until they could regain student loan eligibility. The act, in essence, is dangerously flawed on two counts.
Nonetheless, just as public housing tenants can be evicted for drug offenses, students with federally guaranteed loans committing similar offenses should not expect immunity. It is also important to note that even when a student loses his or her loan eligibility, completing a government-approved drug treatment program can restore the privilege. With all that, the law's deterrent effect remains questionable: Student loan regulations are unlikely to be first and foremost on the mind at a Friday night party. There is, however, still a case for Mr. Souder's amendment. Clarifying the rules would put an end to penalties for those who committed their crimes long before they ever thought of going to college. Narrowing the restrictions is a good first step toward making the Higher Education Act better.