Young people convicted of drug charges are at higher risk of never attending college at all, thanks in part to a law blocking federal financial aid following a drug conviction, according to research published by the National Bureau of Economic Research this month.
Cornell University assistant professors Michael Lovenheim and Emily Owens analyzed data in a longitudinal survey and found that a 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act, which prohibits students with drug convictions from obtaining Pell grants or other federally subsidized student aid for up to two years, often prevented those from ever attending college at all. Youth from urban areas whose mothers didn't go to college were most at risk, they found.
"Importantly, we did not find that the law deterred young people from committing dug felonies nor did it substantively change the probability that high school students with drug convictions graduated from high school," the paper said.
Lovenheim, who has long studied the effects of financial aid's impact as an incentive for attending college, told Raw Story that it's often hard to see an effect because the reasons for attending college tend to be so complex and affected by so many factors. But when it came to researching those with drug convictions, the results were startling.
"One thing that surprised us was how closely the responses hewed to how the law is structured," Lovenheim said. "It's amazing, the way the law works, you're not allowed to receive financial aid for several years depending on the type of offense it is. What we find is a large effect on behaviors of students not going to college for two years."
"It seems very perverse in a way to say these are kids who want to put their lives on track and go to college and put barriers to that," Lovenheim continued, making sure to note that the population of those convicted of drug possessions tended to be disproportionately male, more likely from a racial or ethnic minority group, and more likely to be from a lower-income family.
And while some might argue that financial aid, which is a ballooning part of the federal budget, might be cut for this population to save money in time of numerous budget battles, Loveneheim quashes this argument. "If you excluded every person with a drug conviction from federal financial aid completely, the effect on the federal budget would undetectable," he said.
Owens, whose work centers more on the effects of the criminal justice system, told Raw Story that this law plays into a larger debate about the degree of punishment convicts should suffer for their crimes. By putting off college by temporarily blocking financial aid, the Higher Education Act is lengthening the duration of punishment.
"To increase the generosity of a program that is supposed to help students who want to go to college is a good way to encourage them to go to college," Owens said. "It's not the case that these students have other sources of income to finance college."
Owens noted that, while it's difficult to prove a causal connection, evidence shows that when Pell grants were provided to prisoners to earn their degrees behind bars, "the prisoners who got their college degrees while they were behind bars were much less likely to recidivate." That benefit was revoked in 1994.
Lovenheim concluded that although the evidence was strong, "in general, the number of people who have drug convictions who go to college, are very, very small." He also noted that even a small penalty like community service for a drug conviction triggers this rule, meaning that that this law is lumping those who face serious drug convictions in with those who had minor possession charges.
"I do think the evidence shows that this law isn't the best idea," Lovenheim said.
Students for Sensible Drug Policy* supports changing the amendment blocking aid, which they say was "slipped into the 257-page HEA reauthorization bill without debate or a recorded vote." The last attempt to change the policy was introduced by former Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) in 2009 when he sponsored the Removing Impediments to Students’ Education (RISE) Act.
[Correction: This piece originally referred to Students for a Responsible Drug Policy.]