Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform
2000 P Street, NW, Suite 210 • Washington, DC 20036
Voice: (202) 986-6186 • Fax: (202) 232-8340 
E-mail: [email protected] • Web Site:
May 21, 2002
The Honorable _______
U.S. House of Representatives
Washington, DC 20515

Dear Rep: ____:

We, the undersigned, add our voices to those of numerous individuals and organizations calling for the full repeal of Section 484, subsection r of the Higher Education Act of 1965, as amended in the Higher Education Act of 1998 (HEA), that delays or denies federal financial aid on the basis of any drug offense. Over 80,000 financial aid applicants have been penalized under this law. H.R. 786, introduced by Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA), would overturn the provision.

We therefore urge Congress to pass H.R. 786 or equivalent legislation as soon as possible. Partial reforms exempting small numbers of applicants from the law’s impact are laudable but do not address the extremely serious education and discrimination concerns that we have.

These concerns are numerous. First, drug convictions are not a germane criterion for the educational assistance process, which is intended to determine financial need and provide assistance on that basis. Financial aid is the wrong vehicle for addressing social goals such as reducing substance abuse.

While the drug provision was designed to prevent drug dealers from setting up shop on campus with federal funds, it primarily impacts students convicted of minor offenses. The vast majority of young people convicted of drug offenses are convicted of simple, nonviolent possession. (E.g., 88% of the 734,498 marijuana arrests made in 2000 were for possession.1)

While the drug provision was meant to make up for universities that aren’t tough enough on student drug use, this extra-judicial penalty only applies to students for whom criminal sanctions have already been imposed. School administrators have the power to expel drug offenders and federal judges have the power to rescind financial aid eligibility. 21 U.S.C. §862. The current law eliminates that discretion.

The HEA drug provision is an extra-judicial penalty that negatively impacts poor and middle class students and prospective students. The vast majority of the students penalized have family incomes of $30,000 or less.2 Citizens of modest means are more likely to be arrested for minor drug offenses, less likely to be effectively represented by counsel and more likely to have educational opportunities foreclosed by a loss of financial aid eligibility than students from wealthier families.

Access to education is essential for young people if they are to enter the mainstream of society and the economy. Blocking access for those at risk of marginalization is counterproductive for both the individual and society as a whole. Students who are forced to postpone or interrupt their pursuit of higher education because of financial hardship are less likely to return to finish their degrees. By cutting off necessary financial assistance for one or two years, the drug provision decreases the number of people completing college, diminishing their employment prospects and potential contributions to our information-age economy.

The ban on eligibility for financial aid is especially punitive in light of the fact that access to welfare benefits is blocked to anyone with a felony drug conviction. This means the 92,000 poor women currently affected by the lifetime welfare ban, who support an estimated 135,000 dependent children, are not only being denied income support, but also the loans, grants and work-study they need to attend post-secondary schools. Of all applicants to student aid programs, these poor women are the most needy, and they are also disproportionately women of color: 48% are African American or Latina.3

The HEA drug provision has a racially discriminatory impact. According to reports from the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services and the U.S. Department of Justice, people of color commit drug offenses at a rate proportional to their percentage of the United States population (Hispanics 12.5% and Black Non-Hispanics 12.6%).4 The rate at which Hispanics and Blacks are targeted for drug offenses suggests that law enforcement is unfairly profiling suspects by race: Almost half (46%) of those charged with a drug offense are Hispanic and 28% are Black!5 The current law thrusts this unresolved racial disparity in the criminal justice system onto the higher education financing system, disproportionately denying educational opportunities to people of color.

The current law does allow for reinstatement of eligibility after drug and alcohol treatment, however accessing treatment services can be extremely difficult. The federal Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration and the Institute of Medicine have estimated that only 20% of the individuals who need drug and alcohol treatment in any given year receive care.6 Waiting lists in some jurisdictions are six months long. Drug and alcohol treatment services are scarce because public funding is limited and insurance policies frequently do not cover the cost of treatment.

Additionally, because treatment programs often take months to complete, and eligibility is not regained until completion, a student may be forced out of school for a semester or longer because of lack of financial aid while enrolled in a treatment program -- even though positive achievements such as good school or job performance are often a barometer of success that the best drug and alcohol treatment programs employ. Many individuals would be evaluated as clinically able to attend school while they are enrolled in drug and alcohol treatment; however, the law disqualifies them for financial aid that would help make this important part of their treatment and recovery possible. Additionally, after assessment by a qualified addictions specialist, some individuals would be evaluated as not needing drug and alcohol treatment services. Under current law, these individuals have no way to re-qualify for financial aid through other rehabilitation services during the disqualification period and miss valuable school time.

Substance abuse among our young people is a serious national problem, but blocking the path to an education is an inappropriate response. Closing the doors of our colleges and universities, making it more difficult for at-risk young people to finish college and succeed in their goals, is not a policy fit for an advanced society such as ours.

We call upon members of Congress to stand up for access to education for all Americans by fully repealing Section 483 subsection r of the Higher Education Act that delays or denies federal financial aid on the basis of any drug offense.


The Coalition for Higher Education Act Reform:

National Organizations:

American Association of People with Disabilities
American Civil Liberties Union
American College of Nurse-Midwives
American Federation of Teachers
Center for Juvenile and Criminal Justice
Center for Women Policy Studies
Citizens United for the Rehabilitation of Errants
Commission on Social Action of Reform Judaism
Common Sense Legislative Group
Drug Policy Alliance
Drug Reform Coordination Network
Family Watch
Family and Corrections Network
Friends Committee on National Legislation
General Board of Church and Society of the United Methodist Church
Human Rights and the Drug War
Leadership Conference on Civil Rights
Legal Action Center
Marijuana Policy Project
NAADAC, The Association for Addiction
National Alliance of Methadone Advocates
NAACP - Youth and College Division
National Association for Public Health Policy
National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers
National Association of Student Financial Aid
National Black Police Association
National Council of La Raza
National Education Association
National Partnership for Women & Families
National Women’s Health Network
November Coalition
Open Society Policy Center
Police Officers for Drug Law Reform
Public Justice Center
Rainbow-PUSH Coalition
Students for Sensible Drug Policy
Unitarian Universalist Association
United States Student Association
Women’s Law Project

State/Local Organizations:

Alliance for Reform of Drug Policy in Arkansas
Alliance for Recovery through Medicine of Massachusetts
Drug Policy Education Group (AR)
Drug Policy Forum of Hawaii
Drug Policy Forum of Texas
Efficacy (CT)
New Mexico Drug Policy Foundation
North Carolina Coalition Against Domestic Violence
ReconsiDer: Forum on Drug Policy (NY)
Urban League of Chicago

1 Federal Bureau of Investigation, Uniform Crime Reports 2000 (Washington DC: US Government Printing Office, 2001).
2 USA Today, “Anti-drug law backfires” (April 25th, 2002).
3 Patricia Allard, Life Sentences: Denying Welfare Benefits to Women Convicted of Drug Offenses (The Sentencing Project, February 2002), full report at
4 Substance Abuse and Mental Health Service National Administration. U.S. Department of Health and Human Services, National Household Survey on Drug Abuse, Preliminary Results from 1997 (1999), pp 13, 58, Table 1A. And K. Jack Riley, Crack, Powder Cocaine, and Heroin: Drug Purchase and Use Patterns in Six U.S. Cities, National Institute of Justice, United States Department of Justice (December 1997), p. 1.
5 US Department of Justice, Federal Drug Offenders, 1999, with Trends 1984-99, p. 5, Table 3 (Washington, DC, August 2001).
6 Center for Substance Abuse Treatment (2000). Improving Substance Abuse Treatment: The National Treatment Plan Initiative. (DHHS publication no. SMA-00-3479.) Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration. Rockville, MD.