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On Wednesday, when the House Education Committee considers reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, it will have an opportunity to abolish one of the most illogical and unjust pieces of legislation from the GOP’s 12 year reign of error. I’m referring to the Aid Elimination Provision, a 1998 addition to the HEA which makes students with drug convictions ineligible for federal aid.

This provision effectively denied reformed criminals and recovering addicts access to higher education, which was both coldhearted and irrational, since improving individuals’ economic status is the most effective way to reduce drug use and other types of crime in the long run. The Aid Elimination Provision took away financial aid for students with misdemeanor marijuana offenses, yet students with alcohol violations were unaffected. In fact, the restriction applied only to drug offenses –even rapists and murderers do not lose eligibility.

Between 1998 and 2006, over 200,000 students were denied financial aid. The provision was finally revised in 2006 to apply only to students who commit violations while receiving federal aid, but there are still a number of problems with this.
The Higher Education Act, part of Johnson’s Great Society agenda, was passed in 1965 in part to expand access to college by offering loans and scholarships to poor students. However, the Aid Elimination Provision primarily punishes lower and middle-income students who cannot afford college without financial aid. Furthermore, it disproportionately affects minority students because of the discriminatory way that drug laws are enforced in this country.

The presumption behind this provision is that students who are using drugs while receiving aid are wasting taxpayers’ money. Yet the law only punishes successful students since they already need to get good grades to continue receiving aid. Furthermore, the Government Accountability Office found no evidence that this penalty even helps to reduce drug use. It is simply counterproductive to kick successful, poor students out of college for drug use, increasing the likelihood that they will become a burden on the criminal justice system rather than productive, tax-paying citizens.

The Aid Elimination Provision is just another example of how the personal moral judgments of members of Congress have created an unjust and ineffective criminal justice system. Once again, the need to look ‘tough on crime’ makes for good politics and bad policy.