Adam J. Smith, DRCNet Associate Director, [email protected]
Over the past week, much has been written and said regarding the President's State of the Union message and the context in which it was delivered. But while the focus of much of the analysis has been on the lies, or misleading statements -- depending upon the sympathies of the commentator -- that President Clinton had uttered months earlier, there was one such statement, which Clinton made during the address itself, that has thus far escaped scrutiny.
Early on in the 77-minute affair, Clinton got to talking about all of the different programs, established on his watch, that help to defray the cost of a college education for Americans. Clinton, being "the education President," noted that:
"Today we can say something we couldn't say six years ago... we have finally opened the doors of college to all Americans."
But in fact, on October 7, 1998, President Clinton signed into law the 1998 Higher Education Act, which contained a provision which threatens access to federal financial aid for hundreds of thousands of young people. That provision states that any person with a conviction for possession of any controlled substance will have their financial aid denied for one year. If the person has two convictions, they will have to wait two years, and three convictions means "indefinite" denial of aid. Those convicted on distribution charges (including "intent to distribute") will lose aid for two years, or indefinitely if they have more than one conviction. No other class of offense, including violent or predatory offenses, carry this added punishment.
According to the 1998 Monitoring the Future survey, more than 50% of American high school seniors have used an illicit substance at least once. That means that the doors of college are potentially shut to more than half of college-eligible students.
It is absurd, of course, for an advanced society to take troubled kids, kids who have had a brush or two with the law, and make it more difficult for them to improve themselves. Common sense tells us that an education is a path out of trouble, and offers near-certain entry into the mainstream economy, away from the black markets that our policies create. To the extent that the federal government involves itself in education, it ought certainly to be making it easier, and not more difficult for citizens to pursue their dreams. Young people who have been in trouble, but who, despite their difficulties, make their way to the gates of a university ought to be commended, not turned away.
But even more troubling than the general principle is the discriminatory impact that the new law will have. A lack of financial aid will not bar well-to-do students from attending an institution, only those who could not otherwise afford to attend. The children of most legislators, several of whom have been arrested for drug offenses in recent years, need not worry.
Worse still is the fact that non-whites will be hit the hardest. African Americans, for example, who comprise 12% of America's population, and 13% of drug users, account for 55% of those convicted for drug offenses. This is a simple matter of the methods and patterns of drug law enforcement. This policy then can be fairly viewed as reverse-affirmative action.
The drug warriors, in their moralistic paternalism, have declared that they are willing to go to any lengths to "send a message to our children" that drug use is wrong. But only the most backward and uncivilized parent would punish their children by denying them an education. President Clinton, in yet another "misleading statement," pronounced to the nation last week that the doors of college are now open to everyone. The reality, however, is that for more than half of America's high school seniors, those doors will be open only to the ones with well-to-do families, or the ones who don't get caught.