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Drug laws keeping students off campuses

As college students around the country prepare for this semester’s midterms, thousands of their would-be classmates don’t have anything to study for because of a federal law that strips financial aid from people with drug convictions.

The policy is currently being reconsidered as Congress renews the Higher Education Act for the first time in seven years. While the HEA was originally enacted in 1965 to make higher education more accessible and affordable for all Americans, the Drug Provision added during the 1998 HEA reauthorization is an unjustifiable roadblock in the path to college. Over the past seven years, more than 175,000 students have lost their financial aid because of the HEA Drug Provision.

Every student affected by this law has already gone through the courts. Taking away their financial aid punishes them twice for the same crime. Drug crimes are the only infractions that students lose aid for – murderers and rapists are still eligible.

Last month, Congress’s own researchers at the Government Accountability Office were unable to find any evidence the provision actually reduces drug abuse. In fact, other federal studies show that high school graduates not attending college are far more likely to use drugs than those in college.

Besides worsening our nation’s drug problems and victimizing students who are trying to turn their lives around with a college education, this law hurts America’s economic productivity and makes our streets more dangerous.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, college graduates earn 62 percent more each year and $1 million more over lifetimes than people with only high school diplomas. College graduates pay twice as much federal income tax than high school graduates. The aid ban is unacceptable in a time of budget shortfalls.

And the law does more than hurt revenue; it drives up public spending. Educated people are less likely to rely on costly social programs like welfare, food stamps, and public housing. Budget hawks should be outraged that this provision prevents people from pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and becoming productive taxpaying citizens. Also, people with only high school diplomas are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates. Jailing one prisoner costs $26,000 per year.

We should encourage people who have been in trouble with drugs to move beyond their past mistakes, but the HEA Drug Provision prevents them from getting their lives back on track. Graduating more college students means greater economic productivity and increased tax revenue, while locking up more inmates means taxpayers must pay for skyrocketing prison costs.

Since there are already minimum grade requirements for receiving aid, the partially reformed Drug Provision would still only affect students doing well in classes. Good students would continue to be removed from school for minor convictions, many never returning to finish their degrees. The Department of Education reports that more than a third of students who leave college before beginning their second year don’t return within five years.

It could be another seven years before Congress restructures the Higher Education Act again. Concerned students and educators should urge their legislators to take the lead in helping young people stay in school where they belong. If Congress doesn’t act now, another 175,000 students could have the doors to education slammed shut in their faces.

Tom Angell
Campaigns Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.