An Exam You Can't Cram For

Student loans tied to possible drug testing

If you're planning on getting a federal loan to help you through college, you may have to submit to random drug testing.

At least, that's how a student-advocacy group in Arizona sees things in the wake of the knee-jerk Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1988. The new law demands that students receiving financial aid sign a statement promising not to "engage in the unlawful manufacture, distribution, dispensation, possession, or use of a controlled substance." The law applies to thousands of needy students, who this year will receive federal loans called Pell Grants.

The Arizona Students Association, a nonprofit group that lobbies on behalf of the state's 100,000 college students, is joining forces with other student groups throughout the country to protest the new law. They see it as a "discriminatory, unconstitutional" requirement for getting federal student loans.

"We don't approve of a financial aid program being used as a law-enforcement tool," says Brad Golich, executive director of Arizona's student association. Golich says U.S. Secretary of Education Lauro Cavazos has implied that random drug testing may be used to check up on students and make sure they are complying with the no-drug clause attached to their loans.

Such random drug testing is a "violation of the Fourth Amendment of the United States, which guarantees protection from search and seizure without probable cause," says Golich.

He contends that the new law also discriminates against the needy and minorities because they're the main beneficiaries of Pell Grants. Federal officials say $4.4 billion in Pell Grants have been loaned to students. "If you can afford to go to school.|.|.then you won't have to worry about the government making you submit to a drug test," he says.

Golich's outfit is joining several student groups across the country in an effort to "hopefully either pressure Congress to change the law or Cavazos to change his mind" about making students sign the statement.

That may not be so easy. Congress is wedded to the drug law, and Cavazos is probably in no mood to tell Congress the law is flawed. "The secretary is confident the law has been interpreted correctly," says Tom Lyon, a spokesman for the U.S. Department of Education in Washington, D.C. "If people receive federal funds, they should be expected to be law-abiding."

Lyon says Cavazos himself does not advocate drug testing of students who get federal loans. "I don't know where this whole thing about drug testing comes from," he says testily. "The federal government wouldn't advocate drug testing of Pell Grant recipients."

But he does admit that colleges and universities would certainly have the power to conduct drug testing to make sure students were in compliance with their drug-free promises.

Oddly enough, the student advocates, and not the students, are the most upset by the new law. Arizona collegians who signed drug-free statements this fall didn't complain, says a disappointed Golich, who's been out of college only a few years himself. "Are students today getting used to being so manipulated and told what to do that they just sign the dotted line?" he wonders. Then he answers his own question: "Students are not as willing to stand up and fight. They're so used to getting their lumps that they say, `I just want my degree and want to get out of here.'

 
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