For the first time this year, students across the country applying for financial aid were asked whether they had been convicted of a drug crime. Those who answered yes are now denied or delayed federal financial aid because of the Higher Education Act of 1998 (HEA) drug provision.
On July 1, 2000, the HEA drug provision will take effect, negatively impacting the educational opportunities of thousands of students. Who are the students affected? By design, the HEA drug provision will only affect poor and middle-class students who depend on financial aid. These are the same students who, because of their economic status, are more likely to be arrested for minor drug offenses and are less likely to be able to afford effective legal representation.
The HEA drug provision will also have a racially discriminatory impact. For example, African Americans comprise 13 percent of the population, 13 percent of all drug users, yet account for more than 55 percent of those convicted for drug offenses. This is because of the concentration of law enforcement efforts in minority communities and practices, such as racial profiling in traffic stops. These serious criminal justice problems will cause greater injustice through the disproportionate denial of educational opportunities to minority students.
Substance abuse among our generation is a serious problem. However, blocking access to higher education is the wrong response. Imposing additional penalties for those who are already at risk for marginalization is counterproductive both for the individual and for society. The HEA drug provision also takes the power away from judges to decide whether the student deserves to lose their financial aid. Before the HEA provision was enacted, judges were able to decide for any crime whether the individual deserves to receive federal benefits.
No other type of crime – including rape, murder and assault – carries an automatic denial of federal financial aid. The vast majority of young people who will be denied financial aid are nonviolent offenders. For example, almost 90 percent of the 695,200 marijuana arrests made in 1997 were for simple possession.
Fortunately, there is growing opposition to the HEA drug provision at GW and across the country. Nationally, groups such as the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, the American Civil Liberties Union and the National Organization for Women stand in opposition to the HEA drug provision. In Congress, Rep. Barney Frank (D-Mass.) has introduced a bill to repeal the HEA drug provision.
At GW, many student groups already have joined Students for Sensible Drug Policy in educating students about this unjust law. Hundreds of students have signed petitions condemning the HEA drug provision. And on April 18, the GW Student Association will vote on whether to join schools such as Yale, the University of Michigan, Penn State University, American University and many others in standing up to this unjust attack on education.
-The writer is president of GW Students for Sensible Drug Policy.