Drug convictions restrict access to federal financial aid

by Mike Oakes

For the first time this fall, a 1998 provision of the Higher Education Act will delay or deny federal financial aid to any student convicted of a drug offense.
The provision states any student convicted of an offense under any federal or state law involving the possession or sale of a controlled substance shall not be eligible to receive any grant, loan, or work assistance.
Currently, 6,000 students or prospective students nationwide have lost some or all of their aid as a result of the drug provision. These students answered yes to a question regarding drug convictions on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid. Another 750,000 left the question blank and are receiving aid this year.
The amendment was passed in Congress unanimously and seeks to do two things, explained Angela Flood, communications director for provision author U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind.
“The purpose of the provision is to bring accountability to the financial aid system, and to help students get help,” Flood said.
But the provision has sparked national criticism and opponents claim Souder’s law hinders students’ progress.
“In essence, they’re hurting you to help you,” said Steve Silverman, national campus coordinator for the Drug Reform Coordination Network. “If that’s help … I think the 6,000 students don’t really need Mark Souder’s help.”
Although the amendment doesn’t provide rehabilitation funding for students convicted of a drug offense, Flood said it should open their eyes and hopefully they’ll stop using.
Shawn Heller, co-national director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, claims the lack of direct action in helping convicted students reflects a counterproductive approach to the problem of substance abuse.
“Placing roadblocks in the way of young people who have had trouble with the law, but are trying to move their lives in a positive direction through education, will increase, not reduce social problems like drug abuse,” Heller said.
Students denied financial aid, and subsequently unable to afford an education, will typically fall deeper into drug use, he added.
But Flood said suspending aid to convicted students is essential because it reflects how the financial aid system should work.
“If (students) do something to jeopardize their education, like using or selling illegal drugs, there will be a consequence,” Flood said. “We’re dealing with taxpayer money.”
While Silverman agrees punishing drug offenders is important, he said everyone should have a chance at a good education.
He pointed out no laws prevent rapists, arsonists, armed robbers or other violent felons from receiving aid.
Minnesota Student Association President Matt Clark said the University’s student government has yet to look at the provision, but plans to debate it in an October forum meeting.
Clark said depending on the forum’s direction, it may escalate to the University administration and eventually the Big Ten levels.
“I’m going in with the fundamental belief that everybody deserves a second chance, but under the right circumstances,” he said.

Mike Oakes welcomes comments at [email protected].