February 24, 2004 - Generation: The Student Magazine (NY Edu)

Student Spentheads: The Future Of Financial Aid For Drug Offenders

By Jacob Drum

As UB (NY University of Buffalo) students sit down to fill out this year's FAFSA, cursing their lack of scholarships and struggling to define themselves as white, black, or "Pacific Islander," all will eventually come to question 37: "Has the student ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs?" The question comes from a provision of the Higher Education Act (HEA) signed in 1998 by President Clinton, which states that if a student has a drug conviction on their record, they are ineligible to receive federal aid for college. The Act is set to be reauthorized by Congress this year, and two congressmen have proposed amendments which directly affect this provision. One, by Representative Barney Frank (D-MA), would completely repeal the drug conviction provision. The other, authored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), would simply change it so that only those students who received convictions for drug offenses while enrolled in school would be ineligible. The debate has grown to national proportions, as parties on both sides of the issue vie for control over what started as a relatively small section of the HEA.

The war on drugs has been a source of constant national debate among both politicians and student groups. Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), a students' rights advocacy group based in Washington, DC, is backing the complete repeal proposed by Rep. Frank. Groups like SSDP and the Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform (CHEAR), a group which includes the NAACP and ACLU, have found parallels between the implications of a ban on student aid for drug offenders and the question of racial bias in America's drug laws in general: While the ratio of black to white drug users is nearly even, the vast majority of those convicted for sale or possession of illegal substances are minorities. Arguments frequently used against policies such as mandatory minimum sentences are often given by the same people who believe more positive social effects come from education, rather than punishment.

Melissa Milam, SSDP's media director, believes that the decision to deny students financial aid should rest in the hands of judges, who can use denial of aid as punishment, and school administrators, who have the power to expel students for bad behavior.

"These are the people who know the students best," says Milam, "and they should be the ones deciding their educational futures; not the federal government."

Opponents also argue that the legislation discriminates against lower income families, because those who can afford to pay for tuition without federal aid can get as many drug convictions as they want without jeopardizing their academic careers. Besides that, they usually have enough money to pay for the legal representation needed to avoid being convicted of drug crimes in the first place. Furthermore, the offenders have already paid their debt through the criminal justice system, and depriving them of aid for that reason would be punishing them twice; once judicially, and then again financially.

Milam argues that "denying education to low-income and at-risk students only dooms them to a life without the financial opportunities bestowed by a college degree and makes them more likely to repeat the poor choices they may have made in the past."

Additionally, SSDP and other such groups contend that alcohol is the real drug crisis on college campuses. However, says Milam, "No one seriously suggests that revoking eligibility for financial aid would be a sensible approach to that very serious problem, even though drinking is an illegal activity for the great majority of college students: those under 21 years of age."

Rep. Souder's proposal shifting ineligibility to only those students who are convicted of drug-related offenses while enrolled in college has gained support from Republicans, and organizations like the Community Anti-Drug Coalition of America (CADCA). This position, supported by both government and private anti-drug coalitions, reflects statistics showing that drug use is being taken as a serious problem on college campuses. While seen by some opposition groups as being out of touch with his younger constituents, Rep. Souder has been the chairman of the House Subcommittee on Criminal Justice, Drug Policy, and Human Resources since 2001, and has extensive experience in the politics of drug law.

The congressman's press secretary, Martin Green, says that the congressman authored the amendment because the Clinton Administration misunderstood the original provision of the 1998 HEA to include all applicants with a drug conviction anywhere on their record. While Mr. Souder disagrees with this method of invalidation, Green says that the congressman believes the law in its new form would discourage drug use among students, as it would hold them accountable for money they receive from American tax dollars. Students who are using drugs while enrolled "are not making the most of their education", and it is "unacceptable for American taxpayers to foot the bill. Student aid is not a right, it's a privilege."

Mr. Green also believes many of those opposed to the legislation have read it to mean that students with drug convictions can never receive federal aid. As far as possession convictions go, after the first offense the student is ineligible for one year, after the second the period is raised to two years, and following the third and subsequent offenses aid is denied for an indefinite period. For sale of a controlled substance, the period is two years after the first offense, and indefinite after the second. Also, the proposal states that any student denied financial aid for this reason may become eligible following the completion of a drug rehabilitation program, regardless of how long it has been. Because of the broad base of support built in the House by Rep. Souder, and specifically in the Education and Workforce Committee, Mr. Green does not believe that Rep. Frank's proposed repeal will even make it to a vote.

Historically, advocacy groups lacking support in Congress will turn to the judicial process in order to bring about change. Mark Hurwitz, Assistant Professor of Political Science at UB, and an expert in civil liberties litigation, notes that the Supreme Court has held that conditions may be put on federal financial aid, such as the selective service requirement. The Court has also stated that colleges may drug test any student who wants to join a club, regardless of whether or not there is reason to believe they have a drug problem.

"Putting these together," says Hurwitz, "I do not see too much of a problem from the Supreme Court's point of view in denying student aid to those with drug convictions."

According to Kevin Ryan, director of UB's Student Response Center, the university turns down "very few" applicants for federal aid. He admits, however, that "since the system is so automated, most of them don't even come across my desk." Most rejections for this reason are handled directly by the Department of Education. Mr. Ryan says he can't speak for UB, but he is a member of the New York State Financial Aid Administrators Association (NYSFAAA), which occasionally speaks for the profession.

"Every year [legislators] throw out these proposals," says Ryan. "A lot of times we wait to see how far it gets before taking a position."

Many national student organizations have come out against the ban, but on an individual level UB students seem to be on the fence. While he doesn't support either side, Jason Friedberg, a sophomore Business major, says denial of student aid is "understandable if [the conviction] comes while you're in school. In my experience, drugs take priority over school for many students."

"[The proposal] makes sense, because who wants to fund a druggie?" Briana Bellavia, a junior English major, believes more in prayer and forgiveness than punishment, but generally agrees with Rep. Souder's amendment. "However, people make a lot of mistakes in life, and maybe sticking through college is what is going to turn them around."

Andrew Houlahan, also a sophomore Business major agrees with Rep. Frank's complete repeal of the drug conviction provision. "It punishes people for one mistake they made in their lives. They get no second chance."

The nation's college students can watch and wait to see what happens to the HEA during this legislative session, but they can also take action. CHEAR is planning a series of events for early April called "HEA Action Days." Also, the CADCA has links on its website helping concerned citizens to contact their congressmen. Regardless of the actions of advocacy groups, however, the fate of student aid rests in the hands of the members of Congress, who will need to question the benefits and drawbacks of the HEA based on both political concerns, and their own personal experiences.

Says Bellavia, "I'm wondering about these congressmen--how many of them would be in big trouble if they had this law while they were in college?"


Monitoring the Future, based on a survey of 1,350 college and university students, reported that the following percentage of students used illicit drugs on at least one occasion in 2001 (as posted at www.edc.org):

  • Marijuana: 35.6 %
  • Ecstasy: 9.2 %
  • Hallucinogens: 7.5 %
  • Amphetamines: 7.2 %
  • Tranquilizers: 5.1 %
  • Cocaine: 4.7 %
  • Barbiturates: 3.8 %
  • Inhalants: 2.8 %
  • Methamphetamine: 2.4 %
  • Heroin: 0.4 %

Education Facts: (as posted on www.ssdp.org)

This is not a problem that only affects a small number of students: over 128,000 applications for federal financial aid have been denied because of the HEA drug provision.

Being forced to stop college significantly lowers the probability of a student finishing school: Of students enrolled in a 4-year college, 36% of those who left after the first year did not return. This number increases to 50% for students enrolled in a 2-year college.

Keeping students out of college reduces the possibility that their children will complete college, and helps feed the cycle of under-education, poverty and economic disadvantage: Only 55% of students who enroll in college will complete their degree, if their parents have not obtained a college degree.

Criminal Justice Facts:

Educated individuals are less likely to become repeat offenders: According to the Federal Bureau of Prisons, there is an inverse relationship between recidivism rates and education, the higher level of education received, the lower the recidivism rates.

Penalizing a student under the provision is double-or triple-jeopardy: Students are already subject to the normal criminal justice penalties imposed by our courts, and sometimes additional sanctions from their schools.

The Provision has a racially discriminatory impact: In federal courts, 43% of those convicted of a drug offense are Hispanic, 29% are Black, the remaining minority is White. In state courts, 53% of those convicted of a drug offense are Black. Although Whites make up 69% of the population, it is minorities that have the largest percentages of individuals ineligible for financial aid.

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