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Financial Aid Barriers

Until recently, if a college student's past was checkered with drug possession, it would prevent him or her from getting federal financial aid, thanks to the Higher Education Act (HEA) drug provision, a law that was established in 1998 with much controversy. One group, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP) has been particularly outspoken about the detrimental effect of denying potential college students federal financial aid because of past wrongs. This past January, SSDP began to see its efforts pay off.

"They have changed the policy so there's no reach-back effect," says Tom Angell, campaign director for SSDP. "Students can still lose aid for convictions that happen while they're in college, but not for past convictions. We're not there yet, but it's a start."

Though the policy alteration is certainly a victory for the organization, there are countless students who are still losing educational opportunities. "We know of 175,000 students whose applications for aid were rejected, and that doesn't even count those who didn't bother to apply because they knew they had a prior conviction," explains Angell. "And what's worse, we're discovering that when many states are determining eligibility for state-based aid, they are simply following the federal requirements out of sheer laziness. So lots of states are denying aid as well."

Angell cites the years of hard work and perseverance from SSDP students all over the country for the change in policy so they can receive federal financial aid, but the fight doesn't stop there. "We will be filing a law suit with the Department of Education, stating that the penalty is unconstitutional," he says. "There are two simple claims. One is based on double jeopardy -- the students are punished twice by taking away their aid and therefore denying them an education. Second, there is no rational basis for this law -- Congress doesn't have reasonable ground to stand on when they say taking away financial aid is going to directly rid our nation of its drug problems."

Some states are recognizing SSDP's claims as valid, and adjusting their policies to accommodate students. New York, for example, uses a student's taxable income to determine eligibility for state aid -- not the federal criteria. Beyond government policy, there are private groups looking to reverse the effects of the HEA drug provision, like the John W. Perry Fund, a memorial scholarship named for a fallen New York City police officer. The scholarship offers funds to students denied federal financial aid due to drug convictions to help them overcome financial aid barriers.


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