U.S. Representative Maurice Hinchey (D-N.Y.), along with other members of Congress, national student organizations and financial aid administrators, recently introduced legislation to repeal the 1998 Higher Education Act provision. The law denies federal student aid to students convicted of illegal drug possession or sale.
The law prevents students with a single drug conviction from receiving federal financial aid for one year. Two convictions results in a two-year ban and three convictions results in permanent ineligibility.
In addition, students convicted while receiving aid are required to pay back any delegated federal grants and loans.
U.S. Representative Barney Frank (D-Mass.) introduced the legislation, along with Hinchey and 22 other co-sponsors.
“[The law] is a misguided outgrowth of the War on Drugs. I think it is unfair and overly punitive. It discriminates against a particular class of people … students,” Hinchey said.
“In the roster of counterproductive government sanctions, it would be difficult to top denying a kid the right to apply for a Pell Grant because she was caught experimenting with a few joints,” said U.S. Representative Eleanor Holmes Norton (D-D.C.) in a press release.
Hinchey noted that this type of financial aid ban exists for no other crime.
“You could rob a bank or commit extortion and if you sought student aid, you would receive it,” he said.
Hinchey also claims that the law is biased against minority students.
“The language in the law is race neutral, but the way it’s carried out is not … because its greatest impact falls on minorities,” he added.
“Mandatory minimum drug laws have wrecked the black family. Now federal law is wrecking the chances of young people who have rehabilitated themselves. The least that Congress owes these efforts is to free the best alternative of them all: a college education,” Norton said.
Thomas Keane, Cornell’s director of financial aid, believes the law contradicts the concept of drug rehabilitation.
“I think the idea runs counter to providing rehabilitation. I think education is the best tool in the drug issue,” Keane said.
Keane supports the law’s repeal, describing the collection of drug conviction histories as too lengthy and tedious for financial aid administrators.
“[The law] was painful to administer in terms of making sure we collect the right information about the conviction and then track when a student regained eligibility,” he said.
During the 2000-01 school year, 8,162 students were denied aid because of the provision on drug offenses, according to the Department of Education.
According to Keane, no Cornell student has been denied federal student aid under this law.
“The law has not been in effect for very long,” he said.
A 1998 survey conducted by Gannett: Cornell University Health Services found that 17 percent of Cornell students use marijuana and two percent use other types of drugs such as cocaine and heroine.
However, only 24 students were convicted on drug charges during that year, according to information released under the Crime Awareness and Security Act.
The Cornell Civil Liberties Union plans to join the movement to repeal the law, according to the organization’s president Adam Crouch ’03.
“We are planning to start an education movement after Spring Break by having the [Student Assembly] endorse a resolution for a repeal [of the law],” Crouch said.
The organization also plans to petition and to invite speakers to educate students about the law.
Crouch claimed that minorities and low income students feel the majority of the drug law’s effect, despite accounting for a small portion of the American population.
“Low income people are most likely to be convicted and need the most financial help,” he said.
“We feel that it’s none of the government’s business what someone is putting into their body if it’s not harming anyone else,” Crouch added.
Archived article by Stephanie Hankin