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The Mass Media

The Mass Media

Eliminating Students, But Not Drugs

Eliminating Students, But Not Drugs

As if paying for college wasn’t hard enough between configuring student aid, applying for loans, and finding a job that pays well enough and has decent hours that don’t interfere with school. Thanks to a little-publicized amendment of the Higher Education Act, things have gotten worse for 200,000 college students. The amendment, created in 1998 and enacted in 2000, is known as the “Aid Elimination Provision.”

Part of the federal government’s “War on Drugs,” the amendment prevents students with first-time convictions for narcotics possession from receiving aid for one year. Second-time offenders are barred from federal student aid for two years and third-time offenders lose their ability to receive aid indefinitely. Students convicted for the first time for selling drugs lose their eligibility for two years, and those caught selling for the second time lose eligibility indefinitely.

According to the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) Web-site, the question asks about convictions that happened “during a period of enrollment for which [one was] receiving federal student aid (grants, loans and/or work-study).” It does not ask about prior offenses removed from one’s criminal record or juvenile convictions.

According to instructions on the Web-site, before students answer the question “Has the student been convicted for the possession or sale of illegal drugs for an offense that occurred while the student was receiving federal student aid (grants, loans, and/or work-study)” they must first complete a Drug Conviction Worksheet.

The Worksheet is supposed to help a student decide whether to answer “No,” “Yes (partially during the year),” or “Yes/Don’t Know.” If the result is “no,” the student’s aid is not affected. Those who answer “Yes (partially during the year)” will become eligible for aid during the school year. (The student may be able to shorten this period by completing an “acceptable drug rehabilitation program.”) A “Yes/Don’t Know” answer renders that student ineligible for aid at any point during the upcoming year unless a drug rehabilitation program is completed. If the question is left completely unanswered, the student’s application is denied.

The Web-site defines an “acceptable” drug rehabilitation program: “an acceptable drug rehabilitation program must include two unannounced drug tests” and must either “be qualified to receive funds from federal, state, or local government, or a state-licensed insurance company” or “be administered or recognized by a federal, state, or local government agency or court, or a state-licensed hospital, health clinic, or medical doctor.”

The restrictions for federal aid do not affect state or school aid. Students ineligible for federal student aid due to drug charges aren’t disqualified from receiving money from their state or school.

Two major activist groups are prepared to fight the ban. Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) sent out a press release on Aug. 29 stating that the ban has prevented 200,000 students from receiving aid. Due to the impact, the group has filed a class action lawsuit to challenge the ban’s constitutionality.

“Students are tired of having our access to education destroyed as collateral damage in the War on Drugs,” Kris Krane, SSDP’s executive director, said in the release. “For too long, the Drug War has been waged supposedly to protect young people. But we know firsthand that these punitive policies hurt us instead of help us. We won’t allow this war to be waged in our names any longer.”

SSDP also wrote in the press release that they will be hosting an international conference and congressional lobby day from Nov. 17-19 in Washington, DC.

The American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) has also expressed strong opposition for the ban, stating on its Web-site that the law is “both morally wrong and unconstitutional.”

“The law is discriminatory,” Graham Boyd, director of the ACLU’s Drug Law Reform Project, said on the ACLU’s Web-site. “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.”

The ACLU further alleges that the law affects African Americans and Latinos more than it affects whites, because they are arrested and convicted of drug charges at a much higher rate. “Blocking access to education is irrational,” Boyd writes. “Education is crucial to achieving employment, and that’s the best way to keep people away from crime and out of prison.”

The ACLU encourages students who feel they have been discriminated against in their financial aid process to contact them by email at [email protected] or by calling (866) 4-HEA-FIX (443-2349).