A 1998 law created by Rep. Mark Souder (R-Ind.) to amend the Higher Education Act of 1965 strips students convicted of selling or using drugs of their federal financial aid. During the 2000-01 academic year alone, more than 47,000 applicants for federal financial aid were stripped of some or all of their assistance because of past drug convictions. Even Souder is pushing to change the 1998 law. It is time to rethink the negative effects of denying people the best weapon for fighting poverty – education.
In its present form, the law discourages people convicted of drug charges from resurrecting their lives. In many cases, the former drug users have paid their debts to society. Therefore, it would seem counterproductive to halt people from moving beyond their past and getting an education. Disallowing the pursuit of higher education by restricting funds only gives drug offenders an incentive to go back to using or dealing.
Various funds have been created to supplement aid lost by the law. For example, the John W. Perry Fund was established two weeks ago in New York to assist students for just this reason. Perry, a New York City police officer killed on Sept. 11, was a staunch critic against the nation’s war on drugs, calling the war unfair.
In addition to GW’s Student Association, student governments at Yale University, Northwestern University and American University have all passed resolutions saying they were opposed to the 1998 law. Some colleges have taken their opposition one step further. For instance, Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania decided in March to make up the difference for its students who have lost aid money because of the law.
A proposed change to Souder’s law would make it so aid is taken away from drug offenders only if that drug violation occurs while enrolled. Although this is an improvement, it does not solve the inherent problem that students are being punished for drug offenses by having their chance at an education stripped.
It is time to give people who could not afford to pay tuition a shot at tuning their lives around. Human beings are far from perfect. Common sense policy, not draconian measures, should the guiding force in solving this problem. The U.S. government should take its war on drugs away from the academic arena.