A House committee's effort to cut through the regulatory thicket surrounding financial aid for college students has opened a second front in the battle to repeal the anti-drug provision of the Higher Education Act (HEA). Under this provision, which bars financial aid to students convicted of a drug crime, some 43,000 college students have lost financial aid this year. The HEA anti-drug provision has sparked a huge opposing coalition, including students, universities, financial aid administrators, and educational and civil rights organizations. The provision is also under direct attack through a bill, H.R. 786, introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), which has already attracted 55 cosponsors.
Now repeal of the HEA anti-drug provision has made it onto the House Education and Work Force Committee's 21st Century Competitiveness Subcommittee's higher education regulatory reform agenda. The subcommittee's initiative to identify and eliminate "needless or overly burdensome regulations," titled "Upping the Effectiveness of Our Federal Student Aid Programs," or FED UP, was announced in May. In a May 24 letter to the higher education community, subcommittee head Rep. Buck McKeon (R-CA) and ranking minority member Rep. Patsy Mink (D-HA) urged interested parties to submit proposals on regulations that "are out of date, have become more of a burden than they're worth, or otherwise prevent colleges and universities from helping students graduate from college" (http://edworkforce.house.gov/issues/107th/education/fedup/).
In a survey of suggested regulatory relief proposals published by the subcommittee last month, repealing the HEA anti-drug provision is item 49 out of 103 recommended regulatory or statutory changes to the financial aid program. "Eliminate these requirements," is the change suggested in the survey. In its rationale for the change, the draft noted that, "These are regulations and statutory requirements that have no bearing on a student's propensity for educational success. These regulations add complexity to the student aid application and process without providing any significant social benefit."
Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), the author of the anti-drug measure, has in recent months backtracked from the language he drafted and criticized the Department of Education for implementing the law as he wrote it, which calls for student drug law violators to lose financial aid regardless of when they were convicted. Souder now says that the law should only apply to students who receive drug convictions while receiving financial aid.
But that isn't good enough for repeal backers, who have hailed FED UP's inclusion of repeal of the HEA's anti-drug provision as a major step toward repeal.
"In our view, the anti-drug provision has so many legislative problems that you can't get a workable regulation out of it," said Becky Timmins, head of government relations for the American Council on Education (ACE). ACE and the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators (NASFAA) are two of the education organizations that have pushed for repeal of the provision from early on. "Souder's effort to change the way the Department of Education interprets the rules has gone nowhere," she told DRCNet. "While a Souder rewrite to exclude past convictions would be helpful to some people, it just doesn't address the other problems with the law. We don't see Souder's effort as unwelcome," Timmins added, "it is just not a remedy for all those other problems."
"This shows that Congress is heeding our message. We already have one bill in the works, and this will turn into a bill, too," SSDP president Shawn Heller told DRCNet. "Rep. Souder wants to be a reformer now, but the rest of Congress is not being misled by Souder's attempt to make a bad law less worse. Other members of Congress would like to see this miserable piece of legislation just go away."
"This is an important step for repealing the HEA drug provision," said Bill McColl of The Lindesmith Center-Drug Policy Foundation, which has provided limited support to the effort. "This shows repeal is not just on the plate for the drug reformers, but that the law has become a terrible burden on financial aid administrators," he told DRCNet. "What this really says is that HEA drug provision repeal is on the agenda of the education organizations."
"Absolutely right," said ACE's Timmins. "We were first at the table trying to get rid of this. We fought this tooth and nail in the legislative stage as well as during the early rounds of rule-making," Timmins pointed out. "It's bad law, bad regulations, and it's just not implementable."
But while Timmins said the response to the FED UP initiative showed that repeal of the drug provision was a "community priority," she told DRCNet it probably would not happen until 2003 or even later. "The regulatory route has failed, and I think repeal will be dealt with as part of the HEA reauthorization set for next year," she said. "But in reality, it won't be done next year. They are behind on the Hill."
For TLC-DPF's McColl, now is a time for building up the bases. "Lindesmith is ready to step up the advocacy pressure when the time is right, but right now we need to be building up the grassroots," he said.