New Policy with a Familiar Consequence: African Americans and the Higher Education Act

The month of February is a time for Americans to reflect on the history of struggle and progress of black people in the United States. Throughout the turbulent timeline of African descendants in this country, there is strong hope and endurance, even in the worst of circumstances. We acknowledge the need to pursue the still unrealized vision for racial justice, while gratefully recognizing hard-fought victories. We have come a long way but still have much to overcome, particularly in our overrepresentation in the criminal justice system and lack of access to adequate education. This is illustrated by the fact that in California and New York, more black and Latino men are admitted to prison each year than graduate from state universities.

Imagine a time where a young African American seeking access to higher education is halted at the gates of academia by an obscure federal provision for people who have violated laws that are most rigorously enforced in black communities. The policy limits access to federal funds helping lower income students pay for higher education based on violation of unevenly enforced laws. Not surprisingly, such laws have a disproportionate impact on African American students.

The unfortunate reality is, after all the meaningful efforts of the civil rights movement, such a policy exists today. It is the drug provision of the Higher Education Act (HEA), an amendment adopted by U.S. Congress in 1998. This provision delays or eliminates federal financial aid for any student convicted of a non-violent drug offense, possibly for the rest of that person's life.


In the highly dramatic presidential election two years ago, neither of the candidates would deny illegal drug consumption in his past. However, drug policies do discriminate. The major difference in the treatment of someone in the Bush family having a "youthful indiscretion" and a young black or Latino person from a low income community in the criminal justice system, as part of the "war on drugs," is stark.

In the year 2002, an African American male, who in some states is more than fifty times as likely to be incarcerated for a non-violent drug offense than a white male, faces limitations in access to higher education without any reasonable evidence that this barrier is good for society. Meanwhile, studies repeatedly show that white Americans and black Americans buy and sell drugs at the same rate.

Drugs do not discriminate, as the evidence of substance dependency among the children of the Bush family show. In the highly dramatic presidential election two years ago, neither of the candidates would deny illegal drug consumption in his past. However, drug policies do discriminate. The major difference in the treatment of someone in the Bush family having a "youthful indiscretion" and a young black or Latino person from a low income community in the criminal justice system, as part of the "war on drugs," is stark.

A person living in a predominantly black community is much more likely to be the target of drug law enforcement. The arrest rate for African American youth is, therefore, notably higher than that of white youth. When a black youth is introduced to the criminal justice system, he/she is much more likely to have their case prosecuted. Three out of four drug-related cases involving black youth are formally prosecuted, as opposed to only half of those involving white youth.

The drug provision of the Higher Education Act sets us back significantly in the journey for social and economic justice by institutionalizing the biased practice of allowing "youthful indiscretions" for the affluent while mandating punitive treatment, including limited access to higher education, for people of color and the poor. The HEA drug provision assumes that a lower income student who commits a drug offense, even the misdemeanor offense of possessing a joint, should not be supported in seeking higher education. This standard does not apply for those who are able to fund post-high school education without financial aid and undermines the pursuit of a more equitable society.
The HEA drug provision assumes that a lower income student who commits a drug offense, even the misdemeanor offense of possessing a joint, should not be supported in seeking higher education. This standard does not apply for those who are able to fund post-high school education without financial aid and undermines the pursuit of a more equitable society.

Coalitions of students, civil rights organizations and university administrators are publicly opposing the drug provision of the Higher Education Act. Scores of student governments across the country are calling for a repeal of the provision. Traditional champions for civil rights and racial justice including the NAACP, ACLU and the National Council of Negro Women have endorsed the campaign demanding that Congress lift this restriction limiting as many as 60,000 students from continuing their academic careers. HEA will be up for reconsideration by U.S. Congress next year.

Fifty years ago, African Americans were restricted from attending state universities as a result of segregation. Today African Americans in need of financial aid may be denied much needed resources for higher education because of a non-violent drug offense. If this standard were applied to the "baby boom" generation, many of them would not have been able to ascend to the prestigious positions they hold today.

Remembering history helps us reconcile our present. Balancing justice in the present helps build a better future. If we rise to this challenge, when our children and grandchildren participate in future celebrations of Black History Month, they will learn of the HEA drug provision as an archaic legacy of the distant past.


Sharda Sekaran is associate director for public policy and community outreach at Drug Policy Alliance, a non-profit, membership-based, advocacy organization promoting compassionate and innovative drug policies. She is a human rights activist who believes in the social and artistic visionary power of young people

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