Wednesday, February 14, 2007

UC Berkeley Students Offer Drug Offenders Scholarships

(U-WIRE) EUGENE, Ore. - The biggest problem with question 31 on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid form, which asks whether a student has been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs, is not that it will strip students of their financial aid, but rather that it will scare people off from applying to college in the first place - at least according to University of Oregon Director of Student Financial Aid Elizabeth Bickford.

In her experience, the extreme minority of students who initially answered yes to the question soon realized that their convictions didn't affect their aid. Those who do answer yes - that they were convicted of selling or possessing drugs when they were older than 18, while they were receiving federal financial aid and have not completed a drug treatment program - can easily get their aid reinstated, Bickford said.

But the political opposition to question 31 is gaining momentum.

On Jan. 24 at UC Berkeley, the student government passed a bill creating a small scholarship for students who have lost their aid because of drug convictions. The scholarship - a one-time payment of $400 to an affected student - is the brainchild of Associated Students of the University of California Senator David Israel Wasserman. In an interview, Wasserman said he campaigned for office on the platform of creating this scholarship.

"It's an unjust penalty to deprive someone of the means to an education," he said. "We're putting our money where our mouth is."

In terms of a college education, especially at UC Berkeley, $400 is not a great deal of money, but it's enough to pay for a semester's books, Wasserman said.

However, a similar scholarship at Western Washington University has existed for four years with no applicants, the school's student government Board Programs assistant Erin O'Reilly said.

He also said he had not encountered any students requesting the scholarship, and that UC Berkeley's financial aid office told him that no students currently on campus had lost their aid. But the scholarship is not just a scholarship.

"It's a very important statement," Wasserman said.

The Aid Elimination Provision of the Higher Education Act that created question 31 is the target of the scholarship's political aims.

"We plan to use this as a larger lobbying tool," Wasserman said. "It's important that we take a stand. It's important that we use our voice so they can hear us in Washington."

The Aid Elimination Provision has been the object of several lawsuits on behalf of the lobbyist group Students for a Sensible Drug Policy, with which Wasserman worked closely to draft the bill, both he and a spokesman for the group said. SSDP is currently heading a campaign to repeal the law - a campaign supported by more than 70 groups including the United States Student Association, the National Education Association, the National Lawyers Guild, the Washington State Bar Association and the National Black Police Association.

But does the university need such a scholarship? Bickford, the university's director of financial aid, said no.

"In my experience, I don't know if a scholarship would be helpful or necessary," Bickford said.

Associated Students of the University of Oregon President Jared Axelrod said he is against the Aid Elimination Provision and supports Wasserman's scholarship.

"I think it's great," Axelrod said.

UC Berkeley's student senators "really put their neck out there and took a stand," Axelrod said. "It [took] a lot of courage."

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