Ever since it was determined years ago that youthful mistakes should disqualify a person from having a fair shot at a solid future, getting Uncle Sam to cough up financial aid for college has been somewhere between extremely difficult to virtually impossible for those students marred by a drug conviction. However, a group of bipartisan lawmakers emerged this week with a piece of legislation intended to repeal the law that has crippled so many students from furthering their education because a drug offense disqualified them from financial aid.
The Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success Act, or SUCCESS Act, introduced by Senators Bob Casey of Pennsylvania, Orrin Hatch of Utah and Sheldon Whitehouse of Rhode Island, would crush the current standard of rejecting federal financial aid for drug offenders by eliminating the interrogating portion of the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) form that forces students to confess all of the drug-related transgressions for which they have been convicted.
As it stands, the moment a student attempts to borrow a single dollar from the governmental piggy bank to help pay for college, they are asked if they have ever been convicted of “possessing or selling illegal drugs,” while receiving federal student aid. Anyone who answers “yes” or simply refuses to dignify the inquiry with a response is subject to anywhere from partial ineligibility to being prohibited altogether from gaining access to federal grants, work-study and loans. It is only after the chastised student completes a series of grueling tasks, including drug rehab and random drug tests, that they can finally regain their eligibility.
Reports show that hundreds of thousands of federal financial aid applicants have lost the right to Uncle Sam’s money since 2000 due to a drug conviction or failure to answer to the FAFSA question concerning these types of offenses. Drug policy experts argue that the government’s concept of preventing students from receiving financial aid based on a conviction for a controlled substance has done nothing to facilitate its goal of a drug-free America.
“Blocking access to education simply doesn’t reduce drug problems,” Betty Aldworth, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, said in a statement. “Education and job opportunities are among our best tools to fight the individual and community-level impacts of drug misuse, so student advocates, civil rights leaders and higher education officials have been pushing to repeal this senseless penalty for almost two decades. The drug war as a whole is an abysmal failure that causes so many harms to so many communities, and removing college financial aid from the battlefield is a good start.”
Earlier last year, a task force consisting of U.S. Senators assembled in an effort to simplify the federal regulations for the thousands of colleges and universities operating in the United States. Among their concerns was the financial aid elimination penalty, which was deemed “inappropriate” and confounding to the application process. Now, as Congress considers the reauthorization of the Higher Education Act, marijuana advocates are hopeful that bipartisan support for this issue, as well as criminal justice reform, will lead to the inclusion of the SUCCESS Act.
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