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Drug offenders should not be denied financial aid

By Sam Tracy
On April 4, 2012

In an effort to decrease drug abuse, the Higher Education Act was amended in 1996 to include the Aid Elimination Penalty, which forbids students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for their education. Though well-intentioned, this policy has been ineffective at reducing rates of illegal drug use among students and has had dangerous unintended consequences. Congress should remove the Aid Elimination Penalty in its entirety.

The main goal of the Aid Elimination Penalty is to reduce illicit drug use and, in this respect, it has been a complete failure. Most surveys show that rather than decrease, illicit drug use among youth has actually slightly increased since the passage of the amendment in 1996. While it is but one of a group of laws aimed at reducing drug use, it is clear that the amendment and its fellow anti-drug laws have been ineffective at actually reducing the amount of people who use drugs. It makes no sense to continue using it to deny students federal financial aid.

Not only is the amendment not working, it's actually hurting thousands of people. Due to the extent of drug use in America, the Aid Elimination Penalty has proved to be far-reaching, barring 41,000 students from receiving aid in the 2003-2004 academic year alone. This disproportionately affects students from low-income families and does not affect their high-income peers, whose families can pay in full for a college education despite a drug conviction. The amendment is also disproportionately applied against racial minorities. This is not because racial minorities use drugs more (in fact, research shows that they use drugs at rates similar to whites), but due to problems inherent in the "War on Drugs," blacks and Hispanics make up 74.4 percent of federal drug charges, while making up only about 28 percent of the national population.

While the language of the law includes provisions that can restore an individual's financial aid after a period of one or two years, the United States Department of Education claims that one-third to one-half of students who leave college for a year will never return to higher education. While the law seems to be temporary on its face, in practice it is a permanent end to tens of thousands of students' educations.

Being effectively barred from education does not cause individuals to stop using drugs, and may even lead them to continue or increase their drug intake. Also, the lack of a college education may make individuals more likely to engage in criminal activity and rely on public support programs such as public housing or food assistance, both of which burden taxpayers.

It is also worth noting that drug convictions are the only crime that a student can lose their federal financial aid over. Students who have been convicted of assault, arson, theft, rape, or any other crime may be at risk of suspension or expulsion by their schools, but will still continue to receive their Pell grants, Stafford loans or other forms of aid without interruption. This demonstrates that the amendment is a prime example of anti-drug legislators arbitrarily creating penalties to appear tough on drugs, wrongly portraying drug use as a more heinous offense than violent crimes.

When looked at it as a whole, the Aid Elimination Penalty actually has the effect of preventing large numbers of low-income students and students of color from completing their college degrees, while not reducing rates of illicit drug use among college students. It is a failed policy that is hurting more than it is helping and actually reinforcing the problems that lead to drug abuse, crime and poverty. Because of this, the Aid Elimination Penalty must be removed from the Higher Education Act as soon as possible. 

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