Congress votes to ease student drug penalties

By Bridget Maiellaro

Congress altered the Higher Education Act on Feb. 1, enabling some college students with drug convictions to obtain financial aid more easily. While the change allows some students with past offenses to receive aid, those convicted while attending college will have their aid repealed or suspended.

Thomas Angell, campaign director for the Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a national non-profit organization, said the alteration is a step forward, but work still needs to be done.

“This is definitely a victory, but we remain concerned with the tens of thousands of students who are stripped from aid and can’t attend school because they don’t have enough money,” Angell said.

More than 175,000 financial aid applications have been disqualified since the government began asking about drug convictions in 2000, according to the U.S. Department of Education. This number, Angell said, does not take into account the students who did not apply, for fear of rejection.

“Students may be eligible, but they might think they aren’t,” Angell said. “There is no way to tell how many this is really affecting.”

Congress passed the Higher Education Act in 1965 under President Lyndon Johnson. Its goal was to “expand postsecondary education . and to increase the affordability of postsecondary education for moderate-income families.”

In 1998, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) suggested amending the Act to make it harder for students with drug convictions to get aid. He said repealing or suspending financial aid from applicants with drug convictions would discourage students from using or selling drugs and encourage abusers to get treatment. He also said the change would put taxpayers’ money to better use.

Earlier this year, however, Souder requested the new changes for the law, saying that the Department of Education was misinterpreting the amendment in a “draconian” way.

In January, the Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance, a group created by Congress, said the drug conviction question on the financial aid application was irrelevant and should be removed. However, no changes have been made.

“I think that it should be removed,” said Tina Kerins, sophomore in Business. “Bad decisions should not be held accountable for future opportunities.”

Conversely, Katelyn Johnson, sophomore in LAS, feels the question is essential in determining aid.

“I think for most students with a drug conviction, school doesn’t necessarily come first,” she said. “Financial aid can be spent on those that do put school first.”

Students for Sensible Drug Policy believes that the drug provision hurts the U.S. economy and does nothing to discourage drug use.

“This law increases drug abuse by blocking access to education,” Angell said. “Studies show that the more educated a person is, the less likely they are to engage in drug abuse. By cutting them off, the government is increasing their chances.”