The last thing on the mind of a low-income student struggling to hurdle the financial obstacles of the college application process is a drug charge he received years before. But as some lawmakers see it, that charge could disqualify a student from receiving thousands of dollars in federal aid – money many students have come to rely on for enrollment.

Sarah Royce

A provision is fastened to the 1998 Higher Education Act that denies federal financial support to prospective college students convicted of drug offenses. Unfortunately, instead of deterring illicit drug activity, the statute shutters valuable windows of opportunity for students already in dire need of enrichment. Federal policy should embrace access to education as a motivating and uplifting force, not an instrument of punishment. With the Higher Education Act up for reauthorization, lawmakers should do everything in their power to see that any renewed draft is free of these damaging provisions.

Though the provision was initially meant to deter future drug users, the brunt of its impact has been retroactive. According to a recent study by the U.S. Government Accountability Office, through four years of enforcement, the provision has withheld financial aid from almost 175,000 college students. That’s approximately 40,000 students a year forced to find other means of paying for college. Furthermore, the same GAO report concluded that the policy has fallen decidedly short in its efforts to discourage drug use. Those results aren’t surprising. While there are certainly a number of calculations that cross the mind of a high school student before using drugs, whether or not he can qualify for federal Pell Grants isn’t one of them. If the immediate and often daunting threat of arrest and incarceration doesn’t deter a young drug offender, the distant denial of financial aid for college certainly won’t either.

But much more than a practical failure, the policy is a striking example of how the punishment often exceeds the crime in public policy. Many of the charges that disqualify an aid candidate are minor misdemeanors, infractions that hold no reasonable bearing on a student’s character or promise as a student. For these students – with whom the justice system has already dealt – withholding aid simply adds an excessive layer of punishment. – the provision blocks one of the most reliable pathways away from a life of crime and poverty – higher education – from the low-income students most in need of an uplifting educational experience.

Continuing to withhold federal financial aid from convicted drug offenders will widen already-gaping class and racial disparities within our system of higher education. By its very nature, the policy disproportionately burdens low-income college applicants – those in need of financial support – while having almost no effect on those students wealthy enough not to qualify for federal aid. Regardless of the degree of their offense, previous drug offenders who have made the decision to apply to college are clearly doing something right. The provision is unforgiving to those students who’ve taken the initiative to better their circumstances, instead by holding the one resource instrumental in advancing their education and development hostage.

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