The UWIRE Forum

House bill easing ban on student aid over drug conviction a positive step
August 13, 2009, 5:34 pm
Filed under: Uncategorized

By Joseph Bui, guest columnist

The House is expected to pass a bill that ends a policy barring students convicted of possessing illegal drugs from receiving federal financial aid in addition to to serving their court-mandated sentence.

In the status quo, students who violate drug possession laws cannot receive federal aid for one year after a first offense, two years after a second offense and permanently after three offenses. Those convicted of selling are barred for two years for first offenses and forever for second offenses.

As can be expected, this knee-jerk response from the Republican Party, turned into the party of “no” after the 2008 election, is that of stiff resistance. Republicans in the House have unanimously opposed the bill so far.

Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., the original author of the law in 1998, is quick to argue we have laws and consequences in this country, something students from all demographic backgrounds certainly understand.

Actually, this is exactly what he’s banking on. As cited by the Miami Herald, Soulder sees the law as a deterrent because “a student who knows that his financial aid could be suspended if he’s convicted of a drug crime will be less likely to use or deal drugs in the first place.”

Souder’s logic doesn’t follow though. Firstly, there are already consequences for violating drug laws which provide more than enough of a deterrent effect. Drug violation sentencing can include expensive fines, time in the prison and mandatory rehab programs.

Secondly, Souder’s logic completely ignores that targeting student aid could actually be harmful as a deterrent effect – particularly after the first violation.  Law Professor Mari Matsuda writes in a piece discussing the racial, class and gender biases in the law that “the scariest thing in the world to see, the corrections officers, police officers and prosecutors tell us, is the person who does not care, who fears no consequences, who puts no value on his or her life or any other person. We have to give our citizens a reason to care.”

Making students automatically ineligible for student aid gives them one less reason to drop a dangerous habit and change their lives around.

But arguably more problematic than the entire deterrence debate is the issue of equal treatment under the law.

The universal application of the law has been used as a mask for how discriminatory it is. Everyone found in violation of drug possession laws would be barred from receiving federal financial aid, but who does that really impact?

The Paris Hiltons of the world aren’t exactly going to need federal financial aid to begin with. Combine that with the ability to buy the best representation around and current drug laws that disproportionately target the illegal drugs low income folks are more likely to use, and voila, this drug policy becomes completely meaningless to the wealthy.

On the other hand, under the status quo, if you’re like most Americans and can’t afford dishing out the money for a high-powered lawyer, let alone the more than $40,000 per year price tag that many colleges charge, then you’re out of luck.  You lost your right to social mobility through higher education, regardless of any of your academic credentials, because you were carrying an illegal substance that you may or may not have actually used.

It’s tempting to think of America as this country that is beyond discrimination, especially in the aftermath of last year’s historic election. That ideal doesn’t match the reality though. The efforts to change this policy show us that we’re making progress. The stiff resistance to change remind us that there’s still a long way to go.


4 Comments so far
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Where to begin… there are many good points here, but they are overshadowed by the obvious political and racial bias. Everything is being viewed through a lens here; one which assumes malicious intent on the part of others, and an inability for personal growth apart from government intervention. The great part about being independent is being able to see the hypocrisy of both sides.

You start out by referring to the Republicans as the party of ‘NO’. Democrats can be painted with the same brush, as the party of: NO morals. NO limit to social spending. NO personal responsibility. NO compromise. NO promises kept. NO transparency or honesty. The trouble with both Dems and Reps is that they make promises to fix everything so we can all hold hands and sing happily together… then once you vote them into office, they suddenly have a memory lapse. You obviously dislike the Republicans – but the Democrats are NO better.

Next, there’s the assumption that all drug users wish to better themselves. I seriously doubt there are more than a handful of drug users that don’t realize that what they’re doing is bad for their health, and illegal. Track marks and black lungs are not exactly signs of someone trying to make it somewhere. I’ve had a number of friends who habitually used various drugs… the common theme to them was that they LIKED it. They had no interest in stopping, either. The current law only affects people who have a desire to change. If other existing laws are ‘more than enough’ of a deterrent, why are there still so many drug addicts? Environment? I grew up fairly poor, surrounded by drinking, smoking, swearing, and violence. Instead of joining in and passing the blame, I made the decision to do things differently. You can’t control where you grow up, but you can decide what to do with it.

Another point of disagreement – equal treatment under the law. The law doesn’t single out anyone at all – the Paris Hiltons would be just as ineligible – so it can’t be said to be unequal. In fact, financial aid isn’t even available to people making more than a certain amount of money, so whether they get away with it or not doesn’t even apply.

Drug laws, like all laws, target illegal behavior. You can’t negate laws because of social standing. If a poor person killed someone you know, and got off scot-free because he had a family that ‘couldn’t afford’ for him to go to jail, how would you feel? Would you believe that to be ‘equal treatment’? Similarly, should we reward someone with repeated illegal behavior by giving them federal aid (having no proof that they intend on ‘turning a new leaf’?) Education doesn’t eliminate drug use – just ask Berkeley.

Finally, your price tag on tuition is skewed… many colleges are less than that. Community colleges are even cheaper – about $1,000 per year. (If you spent $20 per week on school instead of drugs, you could afford to get your Associate Degree.) Looking at the Cal State system, it costs around $4,000 per year. If you finish the AA at the JC level, then transfer, the entire price tag is $10,000. If you feel like going to a more expensive school, DON’T EXPECT ME TO PAY FOR IT.

All that being said, I’m not entirely opposed to an amendment to the bill. An outright refusal of financial aid to anyone with 3 convictions does seem a bit harsh. The point of the law as it is now is to eliminate blank checks for repeat offenders. Down the line, however, there may be those who wish to change. It would be good to have some way for them to prove it – whether it be through completing some programs, or submitting to periodic drug testing. But no blank checks. I don’t give handouts to people asking for beer money, and I shouldn’t have to help fund someone’s education so they can spend their own funds on drugs.

If you spend enough time looking for discrimination, you can find it in anything. That doesn’t mean it’s real. If you can stop demonizing everyone with an opposing viewpoint, you might find there are two sides to these issues. Showing favoritism to make up for past mistakes doesn’t reduce discrimination and racism – it merely provides a more justified reason to hate.

Comment by Independant Thinker

Let’s clarify a few things:

1. I’m not sure what racial bias you are referring to. The only time I even refer to race is when I refer to a piece a law professor wrote. Race is not a part of my argument.

2. I am not questioning the motives of people who disagree with me the way you are questioning mine with accusations of racial/political biases. Souder and other Republicans believe that the policy is a deterrent and I don’t question that they believe that. I explain why I don’t believe that it is.

3. I never really understood why the Republicans were so defensive when they are called the Party of No. That’s basically their platform. Government should do little as possible because it can do almost no good.

4. I don’t assume that everyone who uses illegal drugs wants to stop using illegal drugs the way you assume that most people who are using drugs don’t want to change. I’m assuming that people who may want to change will find a situation in which they are barred from aid as a deterrent to making that change.

5. You don’t have to explain to me how rich people are also found ineligible to aid. I already acknowledge that the law is universally applied. My problem is that when this law is universally applied, it disproportionately targets the poor and working class. Federal financial aid exists precisely because many would be unable to go to college without it. When you deny someone the right to federal financial aid (assuming that they need financial aid to begin with of course), you’re basically denying that person’s right to go to college. If legislators want to pass new a law that dictates that all students cannot go to college if they are found to be in possession of illegal drugs, that would equal treatment under the law. The current law is not that.

Comment by Joseph

As long as we’re clearing things up…

1. Race is decidedly an implied part of the argument. First, when you quote someone (and yes, I realize that race was not a part of the quote you chose) who views this issue as having (among other things) an element of racial bias, you give credibility to that belief. Now, it might have been possible to distance yourself from that by clarifying that you disagree with the bill being racially discriminatory. However you go on to state that discrimination is not a thing of the past; that despite the “aftermath of last year’s historic election,” “That ideal doesn’t match the reality”. What discrimination were you speaking of then? Socioeconomic discrimination? Discrimination against people who have used drugs? Neither of those were factors in the ’08 election – the only thing that set Obama apart from any other candidate was his race. You may not name it directly, but there’s plenty of evidence to show you may believe it.

2. Not questioning motives? “Knee-jerk response”, Souder is “quick to argue”, and efforts to make progress beyond discrimination are met with “stiff resistance”. This article assumes that the opposition either is unthinking, or uncaring. It implies that opposition is motivated by an impulsive rejection of the other party, and lacks any element of fundamental ideological differences. And while some actions and decisions may be unintentionally discriminatory in nature (unintended consequences…), no such benefit of the doubt is given to the Republicans.

3. For the record, ‘The party of No’ by itself isn’t what caught my attention. The way you referred to it is what shows bias. Saying that the Republicans were “turned into the party of “no” after the 2008 election” gives a distinct negative connotation. If you were merely describing the Republican party, why were they “turned into” a party that, as described in the article, sounds more like a group of bratty children?

4. Partially true. I don’t assume all drug users are the same way, but I did point out a recurring theme. What I would like to know, is whether you believe there is ever a time when it is okay for the government to say ‘no.’ I’ve already said I don’t agree entirely with the bill as it stands. But look at it from the government’s point of view. They’re handing out money to someone who likes to spend it on non-essential things (drugs), and furthermore is breaking the law. They already know this has happened in the past, and have no way of verifying whether the behavior has stopped. If I had a job and collected unemployment checks at the same time, would it be right, and could I continue to do so by saying that I’m a compulsive liar, but I promise to change?

5. The only people this disproportionately targets are the drug users and dealers. After multiple convictions, if our judicial system can’t change them, then waving tuition money at them is unlikely to do better. We should be doing more to help them (if they want it), but at the same time, there needs to be some form of accountability, and consequence for one’s actions. Ultimately, that’s how people learn.

Also, how are financial aid and college ‘rights’? Programs such as Fafsa and others are basically Government giving to someone who has not earned it themselves. We as a society value education, and the opportunities it facilitates, and so we promote programs such as these. The students, however, still need to put forth the effort to succeed. If they put their efforts elsewhere, they will fail. If they break the law, they’re already setting themselves up to fail. If you hand a band-aid to someone while they’re still cutting themselves with a knife, they will either not use it, or if they do, it will have been a wasted effort.

Comment by Independant Thinker

I’m sorry if I did not make this clear enough, but:

1. I DO believe that race, gender and class biases exist in the law, which is why I didn’t distance myself from the context of the article I quote; however, I DO NOT believe that this specific policy is an example of race or gender discrimination … at least on it’s own.

2. I only meant to imply that partisanship may be one reason why Republicans do not want to support this. I don’t explicitly say if it is because I don’t know if it is or not. I also do not mean to imply that Republicans are uncaring or unthinking – only that their thinking is wrong.

3. Related to #2, I want to make this as clear as possible and I apologize if it was not clear in the original piece: I DO NOT mean to say that Republicans are doing this to purposely treat poor people unfairly, only that this is what results – intentions aside.

4. To me, it’s not an issue of using federal funding, but an issue of fairness. That’s why I’m against the drug policy. When two people from two different classes violate the same crime, they should face the same punishments. If one of those punishments will, in reality, only impact one of those two people, that’s unfair. This is not to say I reject any calls of personal responsbility or any punishment for drug use. I’m not arguing that we do away with drug laws altogether. I’m just saying a punishment that targets financial aid is unfair.

5. I don’t mean to imply that under no circumstances should someone no longer be allowed to go to college. I agree that students need to take their education seriously and put forth an effort to succeed, whether they are using their parents money or the governments. My question is: why are drugs the litmus test for success or lack of success? (For the record, I would also be against my hypothetical policy which would bar all drug offenders from going to college, whether they need financial aid or not). Why can’t something more directly related to merit, like GPA, be used?

Comment by Joseph

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