Walking a Policy Tightrope: Balancing Educational Opportunity and Criminal Justice in Federal Student Financial Aid

Article excerpt

The 1998 reauthorization of the Higher Education Act of 1965 included a provision that reverses the long-standing federal policy of increasing access to higher education. The Drug-Free Student Aid Provision denies federal financial aid to any individual who admits to having been convicted of the possession or the sale of controlled substances. The criminalization of certain offenses and the exclusion of others seem to be accompanied by an unstated racial and socioeconomic bias. The fact that people of color and individuals of a lower socioeconomic status are more likely to be convicted of the possession and sale of controlled substances means that the adoption of this public policy will disallow college access to the very individuals who benefit the most from it.

I'll walk the tightrope that's been stretched for me, and though a wrinkled forehead, perplexed why, will accompany me, I'll delicately step along. For if I stop to sigh at the earth-propped stride of others, I will fall. I must balance high without a parasol to tide a faltering step, without a net below, without a balance stick to guide. (Danner, 1997, p. 87)

Many American students from economically limited and urban minority communities are at risk of losing access to student financial aid. A long-ignored provision in the 1998 Amendments of the Higher Education Act of 1965 states that:

A student who has been convicted of any offense under any federal or state law involving the possession or sale of a controlled substance shall not be able to receive any grant, loan, or work assistance under this title during a period beginning on the date of such conviction. ( 484, 111)

This law most dramatically affects individuals who are prosecuted for drug offensesthe poor and racial minorities. Ironically, this plank of the Higher Education Amendments serves to delimit educational opportunity and access to the coagulated population in greatest need of the liberating and transforming power of higher education.

The Drug-Free Student Aid Provision is an unusually complex entanglement of federal criminal policy and educational finance practices. These two disparate conceptual and practical arenas combine to create a significant threat to educational opportunity. This policy-in-practice can be analogized by the image of a tightrope. Many students who may be impacted by this policy walk the tightrope of social discrimination, neighborhood climate, and low expectations. Likewise, the marriage of educational privilege (like the voting privilege) to criminal punishment serves as a thinly plaited tightrope that may not be able to sustain the original aims or intents of either. Walk with us as we analyze this further; but step carefully.

#35: IT'S A THIN LINE BETWEEN OPPORTUNITY AND DENIAL

No matter how noble the intent, there are some public policies that simply fail to demonstrate the tenets of reason or logic. The 1998 Higher Education Amendments contain such a policy. Encased in this apparently benign public law is a policy that prohibits individuals from accessing federal student aid if they have ever been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs. The intent of the policy was to dissuade students and other citizens from engaging in the use or trade of illicit drugs while receiving aid. The reality of the program is that it removes access to one of this nation's primary mechanisms of social mobility from those individuals who may be using higher education as a means to escape the cyclical dynamic of drugs and its concomitant companions-race, poverty, and disadvantage. There is a drug distribution strategem that has centered on poor and urban communities; this is not to suggest that wealthy and suburban communities are drug-free zones (Inciardi, 1993). Hence, the new provision disproportionately impacts a segment of society that requires federal financial aid as a means of accessing higher education.

The 1998 version of the Higher Education Amendments begins a reversal of the federal government's policy on increasing access to higher education. …