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Trouble was, Charles was nabbed again in 1999 for possession of acid and "X," a clear probation violation that boosted that conviction and the earlier one to felony status. Goodbye federal dollars.
Federal student aid and HOPE are somewhat intertwined, at least in the application stage. As long as a student maintains the required 3.0 GPA and files his federal aid paperwork, he doesn't need to re-apply to the state for HOPE because they use similar application forms.
Although Charles says he never sought federal aid, he still had to fill out the paperwork to keep his HOPE scholarship. In 2000, when confronted with the new drug conviction question, he left the box blank with no hassles. When he tried the same move this year, however, the DOE sent him the Q35 worksheet and informed him his application would not be processed if the question weren't answered.
So Charles instead filed the "HOPE alternative application," which asks about felony drug convictions. It was then that his student aid adviser told him that, although he qualified for HOPE this year, he shouldn't have received HOPE money for the 2000 school year because of his most recent conviction and that he may be asked to pay it back.
Just last week, the school gave Charles (and, no doubt, his parents, as well) some good news: He doesn't have to repay the earlier money and he can keep HOPE aid this year. Now he's worried that somehow the bubble will burst.
"I had to go back (to the financial aid office) five times to get my HOPE scholarship back," he says. "I can't imagine I'm the only one at Tech with a felony conviction."
Hmm. Which brings us back to the moral dilemma facing many tokers when filling out their aid applications.
Shawn Heller of Students for Sensible Drug Policy explains, "Students with drug convictions realize if they lie, they'll get their money; if they tell the truth, they'll lose the money, and that's a terrible lesson to be giving people."
Since there's no national database for drug offenders, there's really no practical way to verify a student's "no" to Question 35, says GSU's Bledsoe.
Of course, falsifying a sworn federal document is a felony -- but, paradoxically, not one that would cost you federal aid.
"It's a calculated risk to lie on the application," says Bledsoe. "The whole thing seems to be an exercise in bureaucracy."
Given the remote chance of catching a pothead in such a fib, does the DOE consider punishing people who are honest and who seek to better themselves through higher education an example of compassionate conservatism? Especially considering that poor people and minorities are likely to suffer most from the measure's enforcement?
"We just implement the law; we don't have any leeway," says a DOE spokesperson. Thank you, Sgt. Joe Friday.
The irony is that the law's author, U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, never intended it to apply to people like our fictional Kevin and Jane.
Named one of the four most effective "conservative true believers" in Congress by Congressional Quarterly, Souder nonetheless didn't mean to penalize students who were convicted before they were receiving federal aid. His goal, according to spokeswoman Angela Flood, was simply to reduce the likelihood that federal dollars would be used to buy drugs. He's now trying to amend the law to apply only to students already receiving aid.
And other signs have emerged to indicate that the administration is backing off strict enforcement of the drug-free student aid law. Incoming Drug Enforcement Administration head, Rep. Asa Hutchinson, R-Ark., told the L.A. Times earlier this month that he opposes denying federal student aid to drug offenders who are trying to "get back to leading useful, productive lives."
Where does the Bush-appointed DOE stand on loosening restrictions? "This is a new administration and we'll take a fresh look at the policies passed by the last administration," the spokeswoman says.
Oh, brother. In the meantime, just don't get caught selling a nickel bag to an impressionable, young stem cell.
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