Injustice 101: Higher Education Act Denies Financial Aid to Students with Drug Convictions

June 14, 2002
Injustice 101: Higer Education Act Denies Financial Aid to Students with Drug Convictions

Taking away student financial aid from thousands of Americans with drug convictions is both unjust and counterproductive, but since July 1, 2000, that's been the result of the "Aid Elimination Provision" of the Higher Education Act (HEA). This bar to financial aid -- including loans and work-study opportunities -- was enacted in 1998 as part of the HEA. To date, approximately 200,000 would-be students have been denied aid under the provision, according to Department of Education statistics.

The American Civil Liberties Union believes this law is both morally wrong and unconstitutional. Drug violations already carry severe legal penalties. Judges have long had the option of suspending eligibility for aid on a case-by-case basis, but suspension of aid is now mandatory and applies across the board. 

"This law is discriminatory," said Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU's Drug Law Reform Project. "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." 

Inevitably, Boyd noted, the law disproportionately affects African Americans and Latinos, who are arrested and convicted of drug offenses at a much higher rate than whites. Recent Department of Justice statistics show that African Americans make up 12 percent of the population and 13 percent of drug users, but account for more than 62 percent of those convicted for drug-related crimes and more than 70 percent of those incarcerated for drug possession. 

People convicted of any other crime, even murder, remain eligible for student financial aid, while those convicted of drug charges, no matter how minor, face a bar to aid that lasts anywhere from one year to life. 

For the 2001-2002 school year alone, the Associated Press reported that 43,436 would-be students were rejected for aid.

"Blocking access to education is irrational," Boyd said. "Education is crucial to achieving employment, and that's the best way to keep people away from crime and out of prison." 

How the Law Works:  

  • Students convicted for possession are automatically ineligible for aid for one year from the date of the first offense, two years from the date of the second offense, and indefinitely if convicted three or more times.

  • Students convicted for sale are automatically ineligible for aid for two years from the date of a first offense, and indefinitely if convicted two or more times.

  • Students barred from receiving aid can regain eligibility prior to the designated terms only by completing a federally approved drug rehabilitation program, of which there is a severe and well-documented shortage, even if they are not addicted to drugs.

What You Can to Do Help: 

Read more about the ACLU's legislative efforts to repeal the law. Take Action! Send a fax or e-mail in support of a repeal of the law.

If you are currently a college student, get involved with more detailed information and lobby your student government about this issue, urging them to endorse a resolution asking for repeal. Education groups across the country such as the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators and the American Council on Education have opposed the HEA, and Yale University just became the fourth college in the nation to agree to reimburse students who have been denied aid because of this law (joining Western Washington University, Hampshire College in Massachusetts and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania). 



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