According to the latest figures from the US Department of Education, the drug war provision of the Higher Education Act is generating a rapidly rising number of potential victims. Under the act, any student convicted of a drug crime loses full or partial eligibility for student financial assistance for a determined time. Last school year, the first year the provision was in effect, the Education Department left a huge loophole for students when it announced that students who failed to answer the "drug question" on their financial aid forms would nonetheless have their forms processed.
This academic year, however, the drug question was rewritten, and students who fail to answer it will not get financial aid, Department of Education spokesperson Stephanie Babyak told DRCNet. As of March 25th, the last week for which numbers are available, 10,098 students have failed to answer the drug question. And while those students still have the opportunity to gain access to financial aid by answering the question, 22,436 students face potential financial aid loss because they admitted to a drug law violation. (The number of those who were correct in reporting a disqualifying conviction and hence will actually lose aid has not yet been calculated.) These figures are based on the three million financial aid applications received thus far by the Department of Education, roughly one third of the expected total this academic year.
Thus, if the present pattern continues, the final toll of students denied financial aid because of the HEA drug provision could approach 100,000.
"We predicted this would happen," DRCNet Campus Coordinator Steve Silverman told the Week Online. "We knew that with the tighter enforcement more and more kids would have their aid cut. It's shocking to see these numbers, but not unexpected. This will only inspire more students to come out and fight this thing and bring new ones into the fold on this issue."
"As a society, we should be asking ourselves if what we really want is a hundred thousand fewer kids in college," added Silverman's counterpart, Chris Evans. "Now we are seeing the real impact of this ill-advised law. This will only add impetus to the HEA reform campaign," Evans continued. "Now that the number of students affected is going through the roof, student governments will begin to see that this is an important issue affecting their constituents."
Some student governments have already acted. According to Silverman, the number of colleges and universities where student governments have passed resolutions calling for repeal of the HEA drug provision hit 50 this week. And the newest endorsing schools provide evidence of the national scope of student discontent. They range from Bates College in Maine to Florida A&M to Southern Oregon University to St. Cloud State University in Minnesota.
Those schools join a prestigious list of colleges and universities, including Howard, Yale, the University of Southern California, and the state universities of Texas, Wisconsin, Michigan, and Ohio, as well as the Association of Big Ten Schools, statewide student organizations in New York and Wisconsin, and the United States Student Association.
The Coalition for HEA Reform, the umbrella organization for the effort, also includes national organizations such as the NAACP, the ACLU, the American Public Health Association, and the National Organization for Women. Their efforts have recently been supported by the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators as well. Rep. Barney Frank, along with 23 cosponsors last month, reintroduced a bill to repeal the provision; at last report, H.R. 786 now has 30 cosponsors, including its first Republican, Rep. Connie Morella of Maryland.
Russell Selkirk, a student at Ohio State University, lost his financial aid last year after answering "yes" to the drug question. He was able to stay in school, he told DRCNet, but only because his parents chipped in. "It was a real burden on them," said Selkirk, "and with my two sisters going to college this year, they couldn't have done it."
Selkirk is still paying a price for his indiscretion. "I still don't have my student aid approved for this year," he said. "I still have to answer 'yes' to the drug question, which means I have to go through another round or two of bureaucratic paper-shuffling. They say I will get the aid this year, but I'm still waiting for final approval."
Selkirk is also part of the movement to kill the HEA drug provision. Involved in the organization For A Better Ohio (FABO), he has been active in the HEA campaign and on other drug policy issues. "FABO still exists, but now some of us have formed a local chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), and we've managed to get the resolution passed by the student government."
SSDP national director Shawn Heller told DRCNet that the large number of students losing aid was "the unfortunate repercussion" that the group had been fighting since it formed in 1999.
That the numbers provide tactical ammunition for the repeal effort was of little comfort to Heller. "In all likelihood, there will be victims on a majority of campuses, and when student governments are able to put a human face on the victims of this policy, they will be even more eager to sign on," he noted. "We are poised to defend these victims and we'll do what we can to help them, but SSDP is saddened that the drug provision is denying students the ability to go to school."
(SSDP has launched a "Students Helping Students" program, in which a portion of the proceeds from t-shirt and other merchandise sales will go to such scholarships. Visit the SSDP store at http://www.ssdp.org to get your t-shirts and help some students go to school!)
(Tell Congress to repeal this bad law! Visit http://www.RaiseYourVoice.com to send an e-mail or fax to your Representative and your two Senators. Don't forget to call them too -- use the Congressional Switchboard at (202) 224-3121 to get through, or visit http://www.house.gov and http://www.senate.gov to find their direct lines or locations. STUDENTS, PLEASE DOWNLOAD AN ACTIVIST PACKET TOO AND HELP GET YOUR CAMPUS ON BOARD WITH THE HEA REFORM CAMPAIGN!)