On-again, off-again draft law puzzles students, leaves college administrators in limbo

There's a price tag on Donald Johnson's conscience. It's $2,500. That is the amount of federal financial assistance for college tuition he stands to lose if he fails to register for the draft.

Mr. Johnson (not his real name) will be a sophomore at Cornell University this fall - maybe. Expenses at the school are running at close to $13,000 a year , and $2,500 may be the difference between his attending or withdrawing. If he doesn't receive a government loan, he says, he will find it difficult to make up the difference out of his own pocket.

''I put off signing up; I wanted to make the government come to me,'' he says. ''Well, now they have. I feel pretty strongly about this but I'm not sure what I'll do. If I do sign up, it will be as a conscientious objector.''

The on-again, off-again law requiring 18-year-olds to provide college financial aid officers with proof that they have registered for the draft was revived by the United States Supreme Court in late June. The high court lifted a federal judge's injunction that would have prevented the law from taking effect July 1. This, together with the approach of the new school year, has moved the long-simmering controversy onto the front burner once again, but this time with a slightly different twist.

The angry protests from college administrators and financial aid officers that greeted original passage of the law have faded away. Despite their objections, the officals see little to be gained by running afoul of the law. And a provision of the legislation that university administrators particularly disliked, because of complicated paper work, has been dropped.

Instead, it appears that vocal protest against the law is shifting to the group most affected by it: students themselves.

There is some concern that the draft law may backfire for the federal government if there are moves either to reinstate the draft or to commit military forces to Central America.

''Campuses could again become the centers of protest, with this issue becoming the focal point,'' says Michael Useem, director of the center for Social Science at Boston University and author of a book on draft registration.

He sees a parallel between the current situation and the decision by colleges and universities in the '60s to rank students by academic performance, giving those with lower grades a higher draft call-up priority. That touched off militant protests that marked the beginnings of the antiwar movement.

Others believe that if the Supreme Court makes a definitive ruling in the fall to uphold the original law, the witholding of aid from those failing to register will simply become standard procedure, eliciting little, if any, further comment.

The flood of paper work that many administrators had predicted would inundate financial aid offices has turned out to be nothing more than a little high water. This is, in part, because of an Education Department ruling extending the deadline for compliance with the law to at least Aug. 31.

Nevertheless, colleges remain divided over the issue. There is still concern about the use of educational institutitions as ''policemen'' to enforce a law in which they do not have a direct stake. At least half a dozen institutions, including Yale University, are planning or considering a program of loans that would replace the federal dollars that students are denied.

In addition, three churches recently announced that if the government cut off educational loans for young men who failed to register for the draft, they would provide special funds to keep the students in school. The Friends, the Mennonite Church, and the Church of the Brethren have all set up special funds, and several others are considering doing so.

At the other end of the spectrum is Boston University. It will not provide either federal or college funds to those who have not registered unless the law states specifically that they must do so.

''Financial aid is a special benefit. It is not something students are owed or have earned,'' says John Silber, BU's president. ''The student who wishes to assert his right to financial aid must accept his obligation to contribute to the society on which his own self-fulfillment depends.''

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