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Students denied financial aid after drug convictions often never go to college

  1. Rob Cypher
    Young people convicted of drug charges are at higher risk of never attending college at all, thanks in part to a law blocking federal financial aid following a drug conviction, according to research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this month.

    Cornell University assistant professors Michael Lovenheim and Emily Owens analyzed data in a longitudinal survey and found that a 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act, which prohibits students with drug convictions from obtaining Pell grants or other federally subsidized student aid for up to two years, often prevented those from ever attending college at all. Youth from urban areas whose mothers didn’t go to college were most at risk, they found.

    “Importantly, we did not find that the law deterred young people from committing dug felonies nor did it substantively change the probability that high school students with drug convictions graduated from high school,” the paper said.

    Lovenheim, who has long studied the effects of financial aid’s impact as an incentive for attending college, told Raw Story that it’s often hard to see an effect because the reasons for attending college tend to be so complex and affected by so many factors. But when it came to researching those with drug convictions, the results were startling.

    “One thing that surprised us was how closely the responses hewed to how the law is structured,” Lovenheim said. “It’s amazing, the way the law works, you’re not allowed to receive financial aid for several years depending on the type of offense it is. What we find is a large effect on behaviors of students not going to college for two years.”

    “It seems very perverse in a way to say these are kids who want to put their lives on track and go to college and put barriers to that,” Lovenheim continued, making sure to note that the population of those convicted of drug possessions tended to be disproportionately male, more likely from a racial or ethnic minority group, and more likely to be from a lower-income family.

    And while some might argue that financial aid, which is a ballooning part of the federal budget, might be cut for this population to save money in time of numerous budget battles, Loveneheim quashes this argument. “If you excluded every person with a drug conviction from federal financial aid completely, the effect on the federal budget would undetectable,” he said.

    Owens, whose work centers more on the effects of the criminal justice system, told Raw Story that this law plays into a larger debate about the degree of punishment convicts should suffer for their crimes. By putting off college by temporarily blocking financial aid, the Higher Education Act is lengthening the duration of punishment.

    “To increase the generosity of a program that is supposed to help students who want to go to college is a good way to encourage them to go to college,” Owens said. “It’s not the case that these students have other sources of income to finance college.”

    Owens noted that, while it’s difficult to prove a causal connection, evidence shows that when Pell grants were provided to prisoners to earn their degrees behind bars, “the prisoners who got their college degrees while they were behind bars were much less likely to recidivate.” That benefit was revoked in 1994.

    Lovenheim concluded that although the evidence was strong, “in general, the number of people who have drug convictions who go to college, are very, very small.” He also noted that even a small penalty like community service for a drug conviction triggers this rule, meaning that that this law is lumping those who face serious drug convictions in with those who had minor possession charges.

    “I do think the evidence shows that this law isn’t the best idea,” Lovenheim said.

    Feb 20 2013



  1. BitterSweet
    Good article, and I think this should be included in the SSDP (Students for Sensible Drug Policy) wiki I did. SSDP is an amazing organization that I am sure most are not familiar with. When I was doing the wiki, I retained a lot of the information on popular debates and topics such as this; the kind of way one retains information by doing something without the intention of retaining information, and then you recognize something out of the blue and are so pleased with yourself for already knowing about it. although not really news as far as dates go far when these practices were started. SSDP Wiki

    It was in 2000 that students with drug convictions no longer had access to financial aid as per a provision to the Higher Education Act. This is one reason why SSDP is a great organization: SSDP and its allies forced Congress to adjust the law in 2006, so that only students attending college and receiving financial aid who are convicted will have eligibility withdrawn. There seems to have been success with campaign as far as I know, which is at least progress on this issue as this law adjustment at least helps people who were convicted before they decided to attend college to be able to get an education and move on with their lives.

    In 1998 there was an Aid Elimination Penalty but it "seemingly slipped into the 257-page HEA reauthorization bill without a debate or recorded vote. Many congress members and financial aid administrators were actually oblivious to this change in law until long after it came into existence. As a result, over 200,000 students have not been eligible for federal loans, grants, and work-study because of the HEA Aid Elimination Penalty."

    However, problems still exist with the provisions of this law. For one, college students that do get convicted lose their aid and will most likely have to drop out as a result - based on statistics and common sense, pulling students out of school will not reduce drug abuse and young people will have little encouragement to become successful citizens.

    In July 2009, the Removing Impediments to Students’ Education (RISE) Act was introduced into the 11th Congress. The bill would repeal the aid elimination penalty. In September 2009, The House passed the Student Aid and Fiscal Responsibility Act, which included language allowing for repeal of the Aid Elimination Penalty for students convicted of drug possession.

    In July 2009, Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) introduced the Removing Impediments to Students’ Education (RISE) Act into the 111th Congress. The bill, which had substantial support, would repeal the aid elimination penalty. Unfortunately, attempts from Rep. Souder (R-IN) to enact a law that would only take away a student’s aid eligibility if convicted of drug distribution offenses were unsuccessful. SSDP continues to make efforts to defeat the Souder Amendment, and provides resources on its webpage to help others repeal this law as well

    Looking back at the wiki - The 1994 Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act dismantled higher education in prison by eliminating inmate eligibility for Pell Grants - but when individuals in prison have access to higher education, there is a ripple effect of benefits that surpasses the rehabilitation of incarcerated individuals; higher education has a positive impact on society by reducing recidivism, increasing public safety and strengthening communities. Incarceration without education is a bad investment.

    Nationally, correctional costs consume $68 billion each year. One in every 31 people in the US is under some form of correctional supervision: jail, prison, probation or parole. More than two thirds of incarcerated people are re-arrested for a new offense within three years of their release, a clear indication that current correctional policies are failing.

    Increasing incarceration rates does not pay off. Despite the significant rise in the correctional population over the past 25 years, rising rates of imprisonment have not been shown to reduce crime or increase public safety. Education is proven to lower re-offense, thus lowering incarceration costs. For every dollar invested in correctional education programs, two dollars are saved through prevented recidivism

    That was pretty much what I copied from the SSDP wiki since that explains it all, and the points brought up by SSDP is pretty much the same opinion I have about the subject. This type of system is flawed and I don't really understand what it is trying to achieve - I know the article mentioned budget concerns, but otherwise, is this an incentive to prevent drug use? It all just seems not properly formed and I can't believe these types of things can exist while seemingly oblivious to the people who create and support these laws and acts in the first place.
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