By relying on a specious link between drug offenses and financial aid, the Drug Free Student Aid Provision of the Higher Education Act represents an unreasonable and misguided attempt by the federal government to fight drug use. Administrators at colleges across the nation should publicly advocate the provision’s repeal and commit to replacing any student financial aid lost as a result of the law.
Under the provision, which was tacked on to a revision of the Higher Education Act in 1998, federal financial aid would be suspended for any college student convicted of a drug offense. For the first drug conviction, a student loses financial aid for one year; for the second, a student loses aid for two years; for the third, a student loses aid indefinitely.
The goal of stopping drug use is a laudable one, but using the Higher Education Act to do so presents many serious problems.
Fundamentally, the provision illogically assumes a connection between drug offenses and financial aid. But since there is no federal law linking murder, rape or other severe crimes to cuts in financial aid, it makes little sense to enact a law designed to expose one specific class of criminals — drug offenders — to punishment both in the courthouse and in the classroom.
Furthermore, the provision is an ineffective way of detering students from using drugs. Suspension, expulsion or other penalties imposed by individual schools present more effective ways of punishing students. These measures are far more likely to turn students away from drugs than the withdrawal of federal financial aid. A loss of financial aid will merely make it more difficult for those already disadvantaged to attend school.
Equally disturbing is that the provision flagrantly discriminates against students who need financial aid. Wealthy students caught with drugs face punishment from only the criminal justice system, but lower- and middle-income students are subject to a double penalty. And as it currently stands, Yale financial aid won’t bail them out.
Not only is it morally unsatisfying to privilege one group of students blatantly over another, but such also contradicts the purpose of the Higher Education Act, which was passed in 1965 to give more students the opportunity to go to college.
Some campus administrations have already taken a firm stance against the law. Last Thursday the managing board of Swarthmore College agreed to replace all federal financial aid lost as a result of the 1998 provision. One day before, the Yale College Council urged Yale administrators to take concrete steps toward replacing lost federal financial aid.
Yale administrators, however, have delayed taking a position until a Yale student is affected by the law. But with a law as misguided as the Drug Free Student Aid Provision, waiting until the problem knocks on Yale’s door is irresponsible.
As one of the nation’s leading institutions, Yale should openly commit to considering reimbursing financial aid to any student affected by the law, and it should actively criticize the provision as a misguided means to achieving a worthwhile end.