Former President Lyndon B. Johnson once said, “We have entered an age in which education is not just a luxury permitting some men an advantage over others. It has become a necessity without which a person is defenseless in this complex industrial society.” It is for this reason that the landmark Higher Education Act was passed in 1965 to insure every child in America more equal access to education. In 1998, Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) tacked a provision onto this law that is against the very spirit of the Higher Education Act.
This amendment, the Drug-Free Student Aid Provision, denies federal financial aid to students with drug convictions for periods ranging from one year to indefinitely, depending on the conviction. Students may have the aid reinstated only if they complete a rehabilitation program and pass two drug tests.
What’s wrong with this law? It hurts the working class students who need federal financial aid. These students may not have enough money for the drug treatment that could reinstate their aid, especially considering how little money the federal government puts into such programs. The law has no impact on wealthy students with drug convictions.
The provision discriminates against minorities. For example, African Americans comprise 13 percent of the nation’s population and 13 percent of the nation’s drug users, yet this demographic constitutes 55 percent of drug convictions. African Americans and other minorities are disproportionately affected by this law.
Has this law reached its goal of making students free from drugs? Look around campus and decide for yourself. Denying underprivileged students education, which has been proven repeatedly to be the best anti-drug and the best weapon against poverty, has not reduced drug use.
Some may say that financial aid is a privilege, not a right. However, this privilege is being afforded to thieves, rapists, murderers and others convicted of violent crimes. What makes those with drug convictions, many of which are non-violent, less worthy of education than other criminals? Don’t they deserve a second chance too?
Apparently not. Once others pay their debt to society based on the sentence the judge hands down to them they are free to rebuild their lives. Those convicted of drug crimes, no matter how minor, are denied access to education, which is so essential to succeed in today’s society.
The first thing we must all do as students who understand the importance of education is write Congress, encouraging them to support HR 786, which repeals the provision.
The second thing we must do is encourage the Student Association to join nearly a hundred other student government across the country to pass a resolution saying that they, as representatives of our student body, encourage Congress to reevaluate the law based on its flaws.
The SA has an opportunity to do this Tuesday and I hope they will, as the SA did two years ago.
-The writer, a sophomore majoring
in international affairs, is a member of GW Students for Sensible