The Swarthmore College Board of Managers has voted to replace financial aid denied to students under the Higher Education Act's (HEA) anti-drug provision, which delays or denies federal financial aid to students with drug convictions. In so doing, it joins Hampshire College and a handful of other private colleges that have responded to the provision by creating replacement financial aid funds. According to the latest estimates from the US Department of Education, some 43,000 students or would-be students were denied aid under the ban this academic year.
While the move had its genesis in a letter written two years ago by student activists, Swarthmore officials portrayed the decision as in line with positions the school has taken in the past. For example, Swarthmore President Al Bloom told the Swarthmore Phoenix last Thursday, "in 1983, the college joined with 10 other schools to state publicly that we thought access to education should not be linked with the Selective Service requirement."
The same drive to disentangle educational access from social policy issues was behind the board's decision, Swarthmore vice president for college and community relations Maurice Eldridge told the Phoenix. "It is bad policy to use federal funds intended to expand access to education as a means of enforcing drug laws," Eldridge said.
Bloom told the Phoenix that the board's action "would entail that we meet our obligation" to ensure that any student accepted for admission at the college be able to enroll.
While students welcomed the move, concern lingers over a proposed revision to the student admission application form intended to identify students who could be in danger of losing federal financial aid. According to the Phoenix, Swarthmore is in the process of finalizing language for a new question on the admissions application form. Currently, the form asks prospective students, "Have you ever been suspended or dismissed from school?" The new question, however, will ask about criminal records. The Phoenix quoted Student Council co-president Matt Rubin as saying he had "reservations" about asking applicants about their criminal records, and reported that students will be meeting this week with admissions and financial aid dean Jim Bock to address the issue.
Former Swarthmore Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org) head Benjamin Gaines and then head of the College Democrats Delonte Gholston wrote a letter to the Phoenix in February 2000, praising the college for participating in a boycott of South Carolina over its flying of the Confederate flag and urging the college to broaden its efforts to create a "humane and just" society by working to repeal the HEA anti-drug provision. The letter also asked Swarthmore President Bloom to "work with the Swarthmore financial aid department, to replace aid denied to students because of this act of Congress."
Two years later, the effort begun with that letter has borne fruit. "Following the letter, I met with the school's president a few times, and he agreed to look into it and raise the question to the board of managers," Gaines told DRCNet. "Since then, the process has been largely out of our hands." Gaines has since graduated and moved into the workaday world, but his efforts have now paved the way for Swarthmore students affected by the anti-drug provision to be able to continue their education.
The loan replacement tactic is a powerful symbolic gesture in the effort to repeal the HEA anti-drug provision and one that could be repeated at other private colleges and universities across the land. State universities, on the other hand, are less likely to be fertile ground for this sort of maneuver, given that their political status as government agencies opens them up to a potential backlash from drug war zealots.
(Visit http://www.raiseyourvoice.com for further information on the HEA drug provision and the campaign to repeal it. DRCNet is launching a national scholarship fund for students losing aid under this law at a 3/26 NYC fundraiser; for further information visit http://www.drcnet.org/wol/226.html#perryfund in last week's issue.)