Vice Squad
Monday, January 05, 2004
College Aid and Drug Convictions

Vice Squad friend Pak Shun Ng brings our attention to this front-page story (registration required) in today's Chicago Tribune concerning the attempt to amend the Higher Education Act to expunge or dilute the provisions denying federal aid money to students with convictions for drug-law violations: "On average, about 47,000 of the 10.5 million federal aid applicants lose their eligibility every year, according to the American Council on Education, the major coordinating body for the nation's higher education institutions." The provisions could influence many other students, though, by deterring them from applying in the first place -- there's one such case discussed in the article. Affected students can regain their eligibility by waiting (one year for a first possession conviction, two years for a second) or by completing an approved "treatment" program. (Whether they need treatment is not a consideration.) As far as I can tell, alcohol or tobacco offenses are not included, nor are violent crimes: possessing a joint makes you ineligible for a Federal loan or grant, but aggravated assault or drunk driving doesn't? (I will try to look into this, but if I am wrong, please let me know.)

Two possible amendments are under consideration. One (presumably less likely) is that the drug conviction section will be eliminated. More likely is that the section will be amended to ensure that only convictions that occur while receiving the funds will count; i.e. prior offenses will have no bearing on the aid decision. According to the article, such was the intention of the provision's original author, anyway.

Yes, we care so much about our youth that we want to keep them from the evils of drugs. We have 18 years to explain to them that taking drugs is wrong (well, except for caffeine and, when you are 18, nicotine, and when you are 21, alcohol, and when a doctor tells you you could benefit from antidepressants, and...) If a youth somehow fails to get this message then we look to fine and imprison him or her -- you see, we care about our youth -- and then to augment that insufficient deterrent by taking away a subsidy that we have chosen to provide to all the otherwise eligible youths, including the assaulters and the drunk drivers. Incidentally, how is it possible that these drug offenders could have enough wits about them to be admitted to an institution of higher learning?

The article notes that: "Some institutions--including Yale University, Western Washington University, Hampshire College in Massachusetts and Swarthmore College in Pennsylvania--are so opposed to the policy that they will reimburse students who have lost aid because of it." Not mentioned is the John W. Perry Fund, set up by the Drug Reform Coordination Network Foundation and others, that also provides assistance to some of those who are affected by the anti-drug provision in the Higher Education Act. Recipients are entitled to use the Perry funds for treatment if they wish, but they are encouraged to do so only if they actually need treatment.

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