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Question on financial form stirs protest


To judge by the numbers, Question 28 on the federal financial aid application has had little impact on the millions of students seeking money for college - 1,140 of nearly 8 million applicants were denied aid because of it this year.

But that question - which asks whether a student has been convicted of any drug-related offense - is drawing an indignant response from some campus administrators and student groups who view the provision as punitive.

"Why do you pull out a group of students - those who need money - and then keep them from getting the very thing that may help them?" asked Ellen Frishburg, director of student financial services at the Johns Hopkins University.

The little-known Question 28 is among the numerous eligibility queries on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid Form, and was added to the form under the Higher Education Act of 1998 under a proposal from Rep. Mark E. Souder, an Indiana Republican.

Souder sponsored the measure to prevent students from using drugs while receiving federal aid, said his spokeswoman, Angela K. Flood.

"If you are using or selling drugs, you are not taking advantage of the taxpayers' money," Flood said.

She added that another component of the legislation was to identify students who have drug problems and ensure that they receive treatment.

Although Souder had intended the bill to apply only to those students receiving aid, Flood said, the wording of the legislation was vague and resulted in the current Question 28, which penalizes students for any drug conviction.

Souder, who has voiced disappointment with the provision's first year, is pushing a legislative change that would bar aid to any student who leaves the question blank on the application - as nearly 10 percent of applicants did this year.

Supporters and opponents agree that the provision has had little effect on financial aid recipients.

At Hopkins, five of the 8,250 students who filled out the FAFSA form could have been affected.

None of those five enrolled, Frishburg said, so it cannot be determined whether any of them would have lost aid because of their answers to Question 28. One hundred-twenty students did not answer the question.

College administrators are not required to check whether students answered honestly, and this year did not have to seek answers from the hundreds of thousands of students who left the question blank.

Some academics criticize the decision to single out drug convictions on the financial aid application, while students who have been convicted of other offenses, such as rape and murder, remain eligible for federal financial aid.

Some also question the validity of using a financial threat to address drug problems on campus. Most colleges have policies that specify the consequences if students use drugs, and provide counseling for students who do. Often, schools treat drug offenses as medical issues. Opponents argue that the policy applies to a certain group of students: those who cannot afford full tuition.

"It certainly adds another level of consequence," said Susan K. Boswell, the Hopkins dean of students. "But it is one that is not evenly distributed around students, since not all students are receiving aid. It's not an equally enforceable policy."

Boswell said Hopkins has a drug-prevention program, and that the university has witnessed a decrease in the number of students hospitalized for intoxication. She said the university treats student drug problems primarily as a medical issue.

Student advocacy groups, such as the United States Student Association and U.S. PIRG, have spoken against Souder's provision.

In a position paper, the USSA states: "We find these measures to be punitive and counterintuitive to the goal of helping students."

The U.S. Department of Education has come out against an amendment that would deny aid to those who do not answer the question, saying such a provision would be unwise.

For now, Question 28 appears to have permanent residence on the federal financial aid form.

"It's political," Frishburg said. "It's 'apple pie and motherhood.' It's very hard to stand up there and say we want students who have been convicted of drug abuses to get federal financial aid."

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