Loan Sharks:

President Bush's education effort so far has been high on photo ops and low on substance. He claimed he was increasing education funding by more than 11 percent. That's not quite right. Adjusted for some fuzzy math -- Bush credited himself with increases passed under Clinton -- the number is more like 5.9 percent. But a move Bush made last week is sure to have a tangible effect -- it will prevent thousands of students, mostly low-income students and minorities, from getting a college education. The Bush administration announced it would enforce an obscure federal law that denies financial aid to students convicted of a drug offense.

In order to get financial aid students must fill out a form that asks if they've ever been convicted of a drug offense, even a misdemeanor. Those who answer yes lose their financial aid -- no student loans, no Pell grants, no work-study programs. For many who can't afford to attend school without aid, that translates to no college education. Here's how it works: students convicted of possession lose their financial aid for a year. The punishment for a second offense is two years. After a third, aid is denied indefinitely. Students convicted of selling drugs have their aid stripped for two years following the first offense and indefinitely following the second.

Bush may spout about "compassionate" conservatism, but he is following in the footsteps of unreconstructed right-wingers. In 1991, Republican Representative Gerald Solomon of New York became the first to tie drugs to financial aid. An archconservative and notorious proponent of the drug war, Solomon once famously referred to liberals as "unshaven, shaggy-haired members of the drug culture, poor excuses for Americans, wearing their tiny, round wire-rimmed glasses, a protester's symbol of the blame-America-first crowd." Solomon tried to push a bill through Congress that would have denied financial aid to students caught with drugs. His proposal lost momentum and died but was resurrected by another conservative Republican, Representative Mark Souder of Indiana, three years ago. Souder attached an amendment to the Higher Education Act of 1998 that did precisely what Solomon intended. Bush has now endorsed it as his administration's policy.

Until now, the law has rarely been enforced. Hundreds of thousands of students have refused to answer the question and gone on to college with their civil liberties intact. But the Bush administration has announced it will mandate a response. Henceforth, those who don't answer the question will have their application denied. Those who lie about a conviction face a $10,000 fine and prison time.

Denying needy students financial aid is only half of the plan. If students want their aid reinstated before their suspension ends, they'll have to submit to random drug tests and a government-mandated rehabilitation program. In cities like New York and Baltimore, where rehab slots are scarce, college students will have to jockey for position with hardcore drug users. Of course, there's an easy way around the law -- simply forfeit your financial aid or pay your own way through a private rehabilitation program. Trouble is, those who depend on the government to help them get an education can't do this. People with, say, George W. Bush's financial means, can pay their way around the law; the poor can forget about college.

Then there is the matter of who gets arrested for drug use. The NAACP points out that minorities compose a disproportionate number of drug convictions and will therefore bear the brunt of Bush's new policy. The numbers back this up. More than 55 percent of those convicted of drug offenses are black, despite the fact that African-Americans represent 12.7 percent of the population (and only a slightly larger percentage of drug users).

The final irony is that those convicted of far more serious crimes don't have to forfeit their aid. It's an odd sort of "compassion" that allows murderers and rapists from getting a ticket to college, but prevents a teenager if he's been caught with a joint.

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