The results of a recent study may prompt members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate to repeal a provision of the Higher Education Act that has withheld federal financial aid from students convicted of a drug offense.
A study done by the U.S. Government Accountability Office found that the provision has withheld federal financial aid from nearly 175,000 college students, yet did not help deter drug use.
The provision that denies aid to students convicted for either the sale or possession of drugs was first instituted in 1998, when U.S. Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) tacked it on to the Higher Education Act. Since the bill began to be aggressively enforced in 2001, the provision has barred approximately 40,000 students from federal aid per year.
With the Higher Education Act currently up for renewal and review, U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has introduced an act called Removing Impediments to Students’ Education, which would repeal the entire provision. Frank said he views the punishment as unfair and potentially discriminatory.
“Students who have drug convictions but come from families that don’t need financial aid aren’t affected by this law,” Frank told the press in March. “I don’t condone illegal drug use, – but preventing students with minor convictions from being able to pursue an education is counterproductive and excessive.”
Souder, who initiated the provision, proposed an alternative amendment to it that would scale back the severity of the proposal, but not eliminate it. The amendment would make the penalties applicable only to students who committed a drug offense while receiving federal aid.
The current proposal renders a student ineligible for aid if they were convicted of a drug related offense at any time in the past, even in high school.
The House committee on education and the workforce said the original provision was never intended to retroactively penalize students who were convicted in the past.
“(The new amendment) would ensure that the provision serves as a deterrent rather than an additional reach-back; it will correct the misapplication,” said Alexa Marrero, spokesperson for the committee.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a vocal opponent of Souder’s provision, have argued that the partial repeal would not be enough.
“It’s like slapping a bandana on a gaping wound,” said Tom Angell, campaign director of the organization’s national chapter. “It would still leave tens of thousands of students behind.”
Margaret Rodriguez, Vice President of the University’s financial aid office, said that the bill has had a fairly small impact on University students.
But Scarlett Swardlow executive director of Students For Sensible Drug Policy said that it is often difficult for individual universities to monitor how many students are denied aid as a result of the anti-drug provision because if an application for aid is denied, no explanation is given. State-by-state figures of students denied aid are not publicly available.
Another reason that the University may not be largely impacted is that much of the University’s drug prosecution is handled internally.
Drug offenses handled by the Department of Public Safety instead of the Ann Arbor Police Department would not make a student ineligible to receive aid.
According to the 2005 campus safety handbook, 71 people were arrested on campus for drug related offenses by the DPS last year; only four people were arrested by the AAPD.
Even if a student is convicted of a drug offense on the state level they have the option of not telling anyone about it when they apply for aid.
“We have talked to parents who encourage students to lie on their application so that they could receive financial aid,” Swardlow said.
“One of the really unfortunate consequences of this provision is that it’s promoting dishonesty.”
Rodriguez said she felt smaller schools and community colleges would be more affected by the provision than the University of Michigan.
Many share her concern that the law primarily affects lower income students, who can’t get by without the aid, and students from minority populations who are often disproportionately convicted of drug related crime.
“The war on drugs was the national cry at the time, and they were trying to fight it on all fronts, but this probably wasn’t the best front to be fighting it on,” Rodriguez said.