Federal Financial Aid Back on College Kids with Cannabis Convictions

Within the Higher Education Act, Section 484 (r) states, “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 eligible to receive any grant, loan, or work assistance[.]” This statement is accompanied by a table of ineligibility periods based upon the type of offense and whether it was a repeat offense. For many affected students, a single possession offense could completely derail their college career. Without other means to pay for their education during that year, students could end up dropping out. This is an issue that goes far beyond federal financial aid for college.

The Higher Education Act

The House has voted on the Financial Aid Fairness Act (FAFSA), which shares an acronym with the application for federal financial aid for college, which would allow students with drug-related offenses to keep their financial aid. Until 2006, the Higher Education Act counted past drug-related offenses against students, while the current version only does if the offense committed while receiving aid is a repeat offense. In essence, not much has changed. Most students with a drug-related offense don’t even bother to apply for aid. Those who have lost their aid often have to pay it back.

As of this writing, the federal student aid policy still reflects that most students with multiple drug offenses will not be eligible for federal financial aid for college indefinitely. However, students with drug-related convictions may have their aid reinstated early if they successfully complete a drug rehabilitation program. If students are incarcerated, they are invited to apply for certain types of financial aid but not likely to receive it.

The Cost of College Attendance

Attending college is nearly a luxury for many (if not most) students. Without federal financial aid, during the 2016-2017 school year, a four-year private institution cost an average of $41,468 per year. Four years would cost $165,872. And the cost has only increased since then. The cost of a public two-year school/community college was $10,091 per year, or $20,182 for both years, with students likely transferring to a four-year school afterward.

Paying for college is a daunting task, especially if a student and/or their family are on shaky financial ground. If a student’s parents can’t help them buy new shoes, they aren’t likely to ask them to help with college costs. They’re more likely to enter the workforce and miss out on higher education altogether.

Income Disparity Creates a Vicious Cycle of Poverty

Income disparity is a far larger problem than recent media reports of wage gaps between men and women. Millions are forced into lower income brackets due to discrimination, and lower-income families often remain in a generational cycle of poverty through no fault of their own.

Furthermore, it is expensive to be poor. There is no possible way to get ahead when extra fees are tacked onto everything. People with limited means are spending much more over time on things required for their daily lives, like housing for instance, by renting instead of owning. They pay higher interest rates, higher overall cost of purchases from making only minimum credit card payments, late fees, overdraft fees, and expensive payday loan fees.

If people do not have the opportunity to save and invest, even small amounts, they cannot pass that information on to future generations. The same can be said about knowledge of programs for federal financial aid for college. Many do not know these programs exist or that they could be eligible. Without higher education, fewer opportunities are available to make a living wage. Housing costs are rising so that a single person would find it impossible to pay rent, much less support a family, which can lead to people seeking to supplement their income however they can, which could involve selling drugs.

Tougher Sentencing for Drug Offenses for People of Color

The U.S. has the highest incarceration rate in the world, which has increased by 500 percent. The system is not adequately set up to rehabilitate those who have been incarcerated. By contrast, prisons in the Netherlands are closing, as part of their focus is to rehabilitate prisoners.

As a product of systemic discrimination, more young men of color will find themselves arrested as compared to white males. Though drug use rates and rates of drug sales are the same, sentencing is tougher, and a disproportionate number of people of color face convictions. When children have a parent who has been incarcerated, some of them exhibit behaviors that put them at risk of being incarcerated themselves.

Cannabis Study Programs

Several colleges have research programs that study cannabis, which makes it seem ridiculous for students to be denied the opportunity to benefit from financial aid due to a drug-related offense. A new certificate program designed for health professionals is available to allow them to integrate cannabis into their practice. There are also several college programs in the U.S. and abroad that exist to study cannabis, which include bachelor’s degrees in medicinal plant chemistry and even a master’s degree program in medical cannabis science and therapeutics. These are high level degrees that require a commitment and federal financial aid for college.

Benefits of Higher Education

Higher education benefits students, their families, future generations, and the economy. People who hold college degrees report that they are happier, healthier, and more satisfied with their jobs. Allowing students with drug-related offenses to obtain and keep federal financial aid for college will help not only the current generation but future generations as well.

This article was originally published on the RxLeaf website. It is republished with permission.

Photo credit: Brad Brundage.