Hundreds of thousands of applicants who did not answer a drug conviction question on their applications were not denied aid during the Clinton administration, despite the law saying they should have been.
Now, failure to answer the question will result in rejection of the application.
"Congress passed legislation and our department is obliged to carry out that legislative direction," Education Department spokeswoman Lindsey Kozberg said Tuesday.
Critics say the law unfairly punishes less wealthy applicants because they are the ones who need financial aid and encourages people with drug convictions to lie.
"If they tell the truth, they're not going to get their aid; but if they lie, they are going to get their aid," said Shawn Heller, director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. "It sets a terrible example."
Officials acknowledge there's little defense against lying because they lack resources to check all 10 million applications received annually. Instead, they conduct random audits.
Education Secretary Rod Paige and financial aid officials decided late last month they would enforce the law beginning with the 2001-02 application pool, Kozberg said. The cycle began in January.
The law withholds grants, loans or work assistance from people convicted, under federal or state law, of possession or sale of controlled substances. It does not include alcohol or tobacco.
A first offense possession conviction makes a student ineligible for aid for one year after the date of conviction and a second offense for two years. A third possession conviction results in indefinite ineligibility. Drug sale convictions bring tougher penalties.
Rep. Barney Frank, D-Mass., has filed a bill to repeal the law, passed in 1998.
The Clinton administration said it ignored the law because of a processing backlog created when nearly 1 million applicants skipped the question.
In the 2000-01 cycle, nearly 300,000 applicants who ultimately refused to answer still received aid, despite the law. Only 8,620 answered yes and were denied aid.
Compliance this cycle has improved, thanks to a new line in the application instructing people that it's mandatory to answer the question.
Of 4 million applications so far, only 14,800 have refused to answer. An additional 27,000 revealed a drug conviction, but nearly half were determined still eligible after completing an eligibility worksheet, a department spokesman said.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy: www.ssdp.org(c) 2001 Associated Press
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