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AMOS IRWIN

Drug war mistargets students

AS COLLEGE students around the country return to campus this fall, thousands of their peers won't be joining them because of a federal law that strips financial aid from students with drug convictions.

The policy is up for reconsideration this month as Senator Edward M. Kennedy and other members of the US Senate Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions Committee restructure the Higher Education Act for the first time in seven years.

While the 1965 law was intended to make higher education more accessible and affordable to Americans, the drug provision -- added during a 1998 reauthorization -- is an unjustifiable roadblock in the path to college. Over the past seven years, more than 175,000 students have lost their financial aid because of it.

The law not only victimizes students trying to turn their lives around with a college education, it also makes our streets less safe and hurts our economy.

People coming out of prison are much less likely to return to illegal activities, including drug use, if they enter higher education. According to the Correctional Education Association, only 10 percent of prisoners who receive at least two years of higher education are arrested again, compared with a general rearrest rate of about 60 percent. Blocking education to ex-offenders only condemns them to lives without the financial opportunities made possible by college degrees and makes them more likely to repeat bad choices made in the past.

Public policies should encourage people who have been in trouble with drugs to move beyond their past mistakes, but the drug provision endangers their chances of becoming productive citizens. Graduating more students from college means greater economic productivity and increased tax revenue, while locking up more inmates means taxpayers must pay the bill for skyrocketing criminal justice costs. Blocking education for determined students is fiscally irresponsible.

One proposal, to scale back the law, would help some students get back into school but would still leave tens of thousands behind. The minor change would stop the provision from affecting people with convictions from the past, but students convicted while in school would continue to be stripped of their aid, leaving the fundamental problems with the law unaddressed.

Since there are already minimum grade requirements for receiving financial aid, the partially reformed drug provision would only affect students who are doing well in classes. Good students would continue to be removed from school for minor drug offenses, many of them never returning to finish their degrees. The Department of Education reports that among students who leave four-year colleges before the beginning of their second year, 36 percent don't return within five years. More than half of those leaving two-year institutions don't reenroll within five years.

Partially reforming this fundamentally flawed law is like patching a gaping wound with a Band-Aid. The Senate committee should fully repeal the drug provision and reinstate aid to all qualified individuals who want to get their lives back on track by going to college.

It could be another seven years before Congress restructures the Higher Education Act again. As the ranking Democrat on the committee, Kennedy should take a leadership role in helping students stay in school. If he doesn't act now, another 175,000 students could have the doors to education slammed shut in their faces.

Amos Irwin is president of Amherst College's chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.

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