Yale University last week became the fourth and the most prominent university to put its money where its mouth is in opposition to the Higher Education Act's (HEA) anti-drug provision. Yale announced on April 5 that it will begin reimbursing students who have lost financial aid because they were convicted of drug possession. In so doing, it joins a growing movement among colleges that have acted to secure educational funding for students affected by the provision's financial aid ban. So far, officials at Hampshire College and Swarthmore have created reimbursement programs, while at Western Washington State University, the Student Government Association has funded its own program.
Under the HEA anti-drug provision, authored by Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN), students who report drug convictions on their financial aid application forms become ineligible for financial aid for specified periods of time. In the three years that the aid ban has been applied, 65,000 have been affected, 46,000 of them losing financial aid during the current school year. Although Yale University officials said no Yale students had been affected, they moved to enact the policy change after hearing from concerned students.
"It comes from a desire that Yale students not have their education interrupted because they could no longer afford school," Yale spokesman Tom Conroy told the Hartford Courant.
Not that Yale needed a lot of persuasion that the law was misguided. According to Yale student Andrew Allison, who coordinated the student lobbying effort, university administrators were critical of the federal law from the first time he met with them and were already working on changing the school's policy in response. "They were receptive," Allison told the Courant. "It was really encouraging to find both students and administrators on common ground."
The new Yale policy will apply only to students with drug possession -- not distribution -- charges. Under the policy, eligible students must participate in a drug rehabilitation program at University Health Services or with another qualified treatment provider.
"I think it's a well-reasoned approach," Yale financial aid director Myra Smith told the Yale Daily News. "It obviously emphasizes that rehabilitation is a part of what we're doing, but also emphasizes that we don't want to interrupt someone's education financially," she said.
The Yale move also drew praise from Yale students and Students for Sensible Drug Policy (http://www.ssdp.org), the rapidly growing organization forming to redress the inequities generated by the HEA's anti-drug provision and the drug war as a whole. Largely fueled by student outrage over the anti-drug provision (and by discontent with US drug policy in general), SSDP has grown from one chapter, at Rochester Institute of Technology, in 1998 to more than 200 chapters nationwide today.
"We commend Yale University for stepping up to the plate when the federal government has not and making sure students accepted at Yale are not hindered by financial obstacles," said SSDP executive director Shawn Heller, who also signaled that the trend could spread to other colleges. "Student bodies and college administrators understand that the financial needs of students must be met," Heller told DRCNet. "This is something we hope to see repeated on campuses across the country."
For Yale students, the move was the sweet culmination of a three-year effort. "It's very rare in activism that you actually get something back, so this is incredible," said Kat Banakis, a member of the Student Legal Action Movement (SLAM), one of the campus and community groups that backed the effort. "It's also wonderful that the Yale administration is being receptive to student resolutions and protests and willing to work with the finances that they have to do something the students have been asking for," she told the Daily News.
Andrew Allison, who drafted a February Yale College Council resolution asking the administration to take the steps announced last week, professed he was "thrilled" with the move. "I'm thrilled with the announcement, and I think it's a great victory for student activism," he told the Daily News. "I think the administration deserves praise for taking such bold and reasoned action."
A bill sponsored by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) to repeal the HEA drug provision in full, H.R. 786, has picked up 60 cosponsors.
Visit http://www.RaiseYourVoice.com/perryfund/ for information on the HEA scholarship fund that DRCNet is establishing and http://www.drcnet.org/wol/230.html#perryfund to read about the fund's inaugural event last March 26.
The Long Island newspaper Newsday has published a cutting editorial on this issue and citing the Perry Fund, available at http://www.newsday.com/news/opinion/ny-vpmcc112664145apr11.story online.