The UWIRE Forum

Congress shouldn’t ease law on college aid for drug offenders
August 4, 2009, 3:37 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized
Ruthie Kelly

Ruthie Kelly

Congress is apparently forgiving these days.

According to the Miami Herald, as part of the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, a bill that passed a House of Representatives committee on July 21 and is likely to be voted on by the full House after the August recess, Congress would, among other things, allow college students convicted of drug possession access to federal financial aid for the first time in a decade. Students convicted of selling illegal drugs remain barred from the system.

But is this magnanimous gesture — estimated to cost taxpayers $24 million between now and 2019, a pitiful sum in light of the other dollars we’re throwing around — a gesture of tolerance that goes too far?

As a progressive student I am always suspicious of laws that disproportionately affect minorities and do little to rehabilitate behavior, as supporters of the new change claim this law does. And especially considering this applies only to those caught possessing illegal drugs, and thus more likely to be users in need of help than sellers feeding on addictions, I can see that lenience would do more good.

In a perfect world, this would be a great idea. But we are not in a perfect world. The fact is that there is not enough federal financial aid to go around.

I am a student who is putting myself through college the hard way, “pulling myself up by my boot straps,” and while those bootstraps were generously aided by my privilege, that doesn’t change the fact that I, like a majority of other college students, manage to get through the day without possessing or using illegal drugs.

Federal funding is a scarce resource, sadly, and this is a way to narrow the applicant field down. It’s not any less unfair than basing a student’s aid off of their parents’ income, even if the parent is unable or unwilling to fund their child’s tuition.

At a time when money is scarce and our deficit is growing larger, I find it hard to summon up sympathy for students being denied funding because they were convicted of drug possession. That’s probably not helped by my experience with my own school, San Diego State University, where last spring 75 students and people from five fraternities were arrested and suspended from one of the largest campus drug busts in history — though most of these individuals were sellers, I have no doubt that some of the arrests that came about from that operation were for possession only.

Do I want those students to be be able to deplete the federal funding that other hardworking students have earned, for many of whom this is their only access to college? Hell no. In my experience many of the college students caught either possessing or selling drugs are, to borrow a phrase from the president, “acting stupidly,” and just haven’t had to deal with the consequences of their own actions before.

As of now, students convicted of possession are ineligible for federal financial aid for only one year after the first offense, two years after the second, and forever only after the third offense. In 2006, this law was softened to apply only to students convicted while in college or receiving aid, not prior offenses, according to the Miami Herald.

Not getting caught possessing illegal drugs for X number of years after you were previously caught isn’t exactly a high bar to reach for or an unreasonable standard to meet, and this law doesn’t affect those who saw the light before college and turned their life around.

This change is unnecessary and yes, does remove some of the incentive not to use or possess illegal drugs. Congress would be better spending its time working on the health care crisis than funding poor, pitiful druggie college students.

Ruthie Kelly is a senior at San Diego State University.


2 Comments so far
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Amen to that. We need to stop the attitude that people are entitled to government money, no matter how irresponsibly they act. It is a slap in the face to you, me, and every law-abiding taxpayer for student drug offenders to expect free help.

Comment by Matt

The law as it originally stood (in 1998 when it was first passed) did ban students even for prior offenses, and it did ban students from access permanently, which I think -IS- too harsh. That doesn’t even touch on the controversy of possession of marijuana to possession of cocaine or heroin. Either way, people do stupid things when they’re young and I don’t think that should permanently affect their ability to go to college.

However when it was modified in 2006, it was changed to not take prior offenses into account (so students get a clean slate when starting college) and it doesn’t permanently ban you, you just have to wait a year after your first offense. I don’t think removing funding temporarily like that is unreasonable or too harsh; there’s still a consequence for breaking the law, but you have a path to redeem yourself and if you do it, you’re fine. It’s just a matter of time. In the meantime, it frees up financial aid funds for other students who haven’t broken the law, including those who depend on financial aid in order to go to college.

Comment by Ruthie Kelly

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