Over 41,000 potential students were denied federal financial aid during the 2003-04 academic year because they either reported a drug conviction or refused to answer a question about drug convictions on their federal financial aid application, according to a Government Accounting Office report.
The report, published in September, studied the impact of a provision added to the federal Higher Education Act in 1998, which added a question Free Application for Federal Student Aid asking applicants if they have ever been convicted of a drug crime. Applicants who answer yes or refuse to answer the question can be denied all federal financial aid, including Pell Grants and federal loans.
The provision was added to the Higher Education Act in an attempt to reduce drug crime, but critics have raised concerns that the provision could deter people from pursuing a college degree.
The Government Accounting Office (GAO) report was inconclusive about whether the policy actually deters drug crimes, and also could not determine if the policy actually deters people from pursuing higher education. However, the report did indicate that since the rule was passed, thousands of federal aid applicants have been denied millions of dollars in potential aid.
Though applicants being denied aid represent a small percentage of the total of applicants applying for federal aid – just 0.3 percent of the 13,009,596 applicants in 2003-04 – the GAO estimates that $45 million in Pell Grants was denied to about 18,000 students in 2003-04 and over $100 million in loans was denied to about 29,000 students as a result of the drug crime provision.
Despite the inconclusive data, concern that the policy could steer students away from higher education has caught the attention of many student activist groups.
“Students are tired of seeing their education jeopardized to putative drug policies,” said Tom Angell, campaign director for Students for Sensible Drug Policy, a national advocacy group that campaigns for drug law reform.
The group cites the fact that the financial aid policy could not be shown to deter drug use as an argument that the policy should be removed.
“The law on drugs should not be a war on education,” Angell said.
Over 115 college campuses have opened chapters of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, working on lobbying Congress, marching Capitol Hill, and working on their own campuses to change their school policies.
According to the GAO report, postsecondary education is found to have a positive impact on lifetime earnings. The average lifetime earnings for a high school graduate is $1.2 million, while those who have bachelor degrees are reported to earn $2.1 million. If the drug provision indeed deters students from completing postsecondary education, drug offenders may not be able to receive the heftier paychecks of those who hold a bachelor’s degree.
“Those that get caught with drugs and have an arrest record and even a conviction record in many cases their job opportunities in the future are already limited,” said Brian Renauer, assistant professor of criminal justice at Portland State University. “To take that opportunity [of attending college] away could do more harm than good.”
“I understand where the feds are coming from. Ultimately I think they’re concerned with students not paying back loans.” Renauer added. “[But] using drug conviction as an indication of that isn’t very good,”
There are not many options for aid applicants who are denied aid due to the drug provision. Drug offenders are still eligible for some private scholarships and grants, albeit not many. The John W. Perry Scholarship fund awards grants to people who have lost heir financial aid to the drug provision.
At PSU, few students have come to the financial aid office seeking assistance with denial of financial due to a drug conviction, according to the Office of Financial Aid.
“Personally, I’ve only been involved with maybe five or six situations [of drug offenders desiring financial assistance] in the last few years,” said Ken McGhee, director of financial aid at Portland State University.