The House Education & Labor Committee approved a bill that would repeal a law that prevents students with drug convictions from receiving financial aid. Rep. Karen Bass (D-CA) sponsored the Financial Aid Fairness for Students Act with over 30 co-sponsors.
In 1998, Congress amended the Higher Education Act by adding the Aid Elimination Penalty (AEP), cutting off students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid.
As a result of the change, a question about past drug convictions was added to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA). Students looking for help paying for college must fill out a FAFSA to be eligible for loans, grants, and work-study programs. After the drug offense question was added to the form, more than 41,000 students were denied financial aid each year, not including students who didn’t bother applying because of marijuana or other drug offenses.
“The best possible intervention for a young person struggling in their relationship with drugs is a quality education,” Betty Aldworth, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), said in an interview with Forbes. “Evidence demonstrates that denying them access only harms the students and their communities.
In 2006, Congress amended the AEP to only cut off financial to students convicted of drug offenses while receiving aid. Students convicted for possession are denied aid for one year for the first offense, two years for the second offense, and permanently for the third offense. Students convicted for selling are denied aid for two years for the first offense, and indefinitely if there is another offense.
The change to the AEP rules reduced the number of rejected applications to about 1,000 per year, though the question about past drug convictions is still on the FAFSA application.
If the Financial Aid Fairness for Students bill is approved by Congress, it would remove the question about past drug convictions from the FAFSA entirely.
Rep. Danny Davis (D-Ill.), a co-sponsor of the bill, said, “This policy unfairly targets poor and minority students and costs society more in terms of crime and lost economic productivity.”
Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU’s Drug Law Reform Project, says punishing students for drug offenses is discriminatory and furthers inequality. “If a student is convicted of a drug offense and her family can afford to pay for college, she will be unaffected by the legislation, while those who are already in danger of being forced to society’s margins will be further disempowered,” he said.
Aldworth says that denying financial aid to students convicted with marijuana or other low-level drug offenses is part of a larger problem. “Young people of color are disproportionately impacted by these policies just as people of color are disproportionately targeted for enforcement of drug laws in general,” Aldworth said. “This is one part of a massive system of systemic discrimination against communities, with collateral consequences that reach far beyond a single person’s education.”