A congressional committee approved a bill on Thursday that would repeal a federal law that punishes college students who are convicted of drug offenses by stripping them of their financial aid.
First enacted in 1998, the Higher Education Act (HEA) Aid Elimination Penalty has since costs hundreds of thousands of students access to the means to pay for their tuition, some because of low-level marijuana offenses.
Critics have argued that blocking people from being able to pursue a college degree is a counterproductive way to respond to substance use and misuse issues.
“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. “Evidence demonstrates that denying them access only harms the students and their communities.”
In addition to deleting the penalty itself, the new bill as approved by the House Education & Labor Committee also removes a drug conviction question from the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA), which is the mechanism the Department of Education has used to enforce the punishment.
Although the penalty was already scaled back from its original form in 2006 to take away a reachback effect that punished students for past offenses and has since only applied to those convicted while receiving aid, advocates say the FAFSA question is unclear and has deterred countless eligible students from even applying.
“We know anecdotally that a lot of students are easily confused by the question,” Grant Smith, deputy director of national affairs for the Drug Policy Alliance (DPA), said in an interview. “They may confuse an arrest or even a police encounter as sufficient cause not to complete the FAFSA form.”
The next step for the repeal language, which is part of much broader periodic HEA reauthorization legislation, will be the House floor. It is unknown if any opponents will seek to reinstate the penalty through amendments, though it is likely the chamber’s Democratic majority would be able to defeat any such move—and no GOP lawmakers pushed for the reform to be stricken during the committee markup this week.
The Senate is also expected to take up parallel HEA reform legislation, though the prospects for moving the drug penalty repeal through the Republican-controlled chamber are less certain.
SSDP, DPA and other stakeholders involved with the Unlock Higher Ed Coalition have worked the HEA reauthorization process this year to delete the drug conviction penalty and to reinstate Pell grant eligibility to incarcerated students—another area in which advocates had a win with the new bill advancing in the House.
“No modern movement for social change can succeed without the voices of young people and those who are directly impacted by injustice,” Aldworth said, pointing out that SSDP has worked for “more than 20 years to ensure every American can access education, regardless of whether they have been caught using drugs.”
To make the case for repealing the financial aid penalty, the coalition has brought affected people to Capitol Hill to meet with lawmakers and staffers to “highlight how this directly impacts people with criminal convictions and underscore that it only penalizes people who really need the aid,” Smith said.
People from families that can afford to pay for college without grants and loans don’t need to worry about losing their access to education over a cannabis or other drug conviction, advocates point out.
They also argue that it has a discriminatory impact because drug laws are enforced more often and more harshly against people of color despite virtually identical use rates across races.
“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.”
Sen. Cory Booker (D-NJ), a presidential candidate, filed a bill earlier this year that would remove the drug conviction question from FAFSA.
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