Op-ed: War on drugs or war on education?

As college students around the country prepare for this semester’s midterms, thousands of their would-be classmates don’t have anything to study for because of a federal law that strips financial aid from people with drug convictions.

The policy is currently being reconsidered as Congress renews the Higher Education Act for the first time in seven years. While the HEA was originally enacted in 1965 to make higher education more accessible and affordable for all Americans, the drug provision added during the 1998 HEA reauthorization is an unjustifiable roadblock on the path to college. Over the past seven years, more than 175,000 students have lost their financial aid because of the provision.

Every student affected by this law has already gone through the courts. Taking away their financial aid punishes them twice for the same crime. Drug crimes are the only infractions that students lose aid for; murderers and rapists are still eligible. And because of racial profiling and the discriminatory enforcement of drug laws, the policy disproportionately keeps people of color out of college.

Last month, Congress’ own researchers at the Government Accountability Office were unable to find any evidence the provision actually reduces drug abuse. In fact, other federal studies show that high school graduates not attending college are far more likely to use drugs than those in college.

Besides worsening our nation’s drug problems and victimizing students who are trying to turn their lives around with a college education, this law hurts America’s economic productivity and makes our streets more dangerous.

According to the U.S. Census Bureau, college graduates earn 62 percent more each year and $1 million more over lifetimes than people with only high school diplomas. College graduates pay twice as much federal income tax than high school graduates. The revenue-slashing aid ban is unacceptable in a time of budget shortfalls.

And the law does more than hurt revenue — it drives up public spending. Educated people are less likely to rely on costly social programs like welfare, food stamps and public housing. Budget hawks should be outraged that this provision prevents people from pulling themselves up by their bootstraps and becoming productive taxpaying citizens.

College graduates are also less likely to break the law and become costly drains on the criminal justice system. People with only high school diplomas are 12 times more likely to be incarcerated than college graduates. Jailing one prisoner costs $26,000 per year.

Graduating more college students means greater economic productivity and increased tax revenue, while locking up more inmates means taxpayers must pay for skyrocketing prison costs. Keeping this policy on the books is fiscally irresponsible.

One pending proposal to scale back the law would help some students get back into school but would leave thousands behind. The minor change would stop the provision from affecting people with convictions in the past, but students busted while in school would continue to lose their aid, leaving the fundamental problems with the law unaddressed.

Since there are already minimum grade requirements for receiving aid, the partially reformed provision would still only affect students doing well in classes. Good students would continue to be removed from school for minor convictions, many never returning to finish their degrees. The Department of Education reports that more than a third of students leaving college before beginning their second year don’t return within five years.

Partially reforming this fundamentally flawed law is like slapping a band-aid on a gaping wound. Lawmakers should fully repeal the drug provision and reinstate aid to all qualified individuals who want to earn a college education.

Students who realize this policy is counterproductive and discriminatory should contact Students for Sensible Drug Policy and get involved in efforts to take drug war politics out of education. It could be another seven years before Congress restructures the Higher Education Act again. Concerned students and educators should urge their legislators to take the lead in helping young people stay in school where they belong. If Congress doesn’t act now, another 175,000 students could have the doors to education slammed shut in their faces.

Tom Angell is campaigns director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy.