Back in January 2000, I was caught with a pipe containing marijuana residue. I pleaded guilty, paid my fine, and thought I'd be able to move on with my life so I didn't bother telling my mom. But when it came time to fill out my financial aid application together, we came across a question asking if I'd ever been convicted on a drug charge. I had to fess up.
In 1998, without debate or a recorded vote, Rep. Mark Souder (R-IN, 3rd District) slipped an obscure provision into the Higher Education Act (HEA) that strips financial aid from students who have drug convictions. Since that time, more than 160,000 students have been affected by Souder's HEA Drug Provision. Souder recently rejoined the education committee in the U.S. House, and because of his past attacks on access to education, students around the country are worried.
I am one of those students.
Although my mom was understandably disappointed with me, she didn't want my mistake to prevent me from going to college. But without financial aid it was nearly impossible to continue my education. Luckily my mom was refinancing our house at the time, so she had some extra money to help me pay for tuition. She even offered to let me charge my school books on her credit card so I could afford to stay in school.
Over the past six years, most major education, addiction recovery, civil rights, and student organizations have said Souder's law is a bad idea. Some of the more than 180 organizations that have risen in opposition to Souder's HEA Drug Provision are the National Education Association, the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, the Association for Addiction Professionals, the NAACP, and the United States Student Association.
In response to this growing outrage, Souder has backtracked, saying that his own law should be scaled back and calling its current enforcement "draconian." He claims he meant for the law to apply only to students who get convicted while they're attending college, but that the Department of Education is misinterpreting the law by also denying aid to students with convictions in the past.
But blaming his own mistakes on others doesn't help the victims of his fundamentally flawed law. Under Souder's new proposal, students who were convicted before they were enrolled in college would now be eligible to receive aid, but thousands of students would be left behind and the harms inherent in the HEA Drug Provision would remain unaddressed.
Souder's new proposal wouldn't have helped me since I got convicted when I was already enrolled in school. Even with Souder's proposed changes, the HEA Drug Provision would still have an unfair impact on minorities because of the discriminatory enforcement of drug laws.
It would still only affect students from low- and middle-income families, since wealthier students can afford tuition on their own and don't have to worry about losing access to college because of a drug conviction. Souder even remarked that his law couldn't affect his own son since he doesn't rely on public aid to go to school.
Since there are already minimum GPA requirements for receiving financial aid, Souder's law would still only affect students who are doing well in school. The drug question's appearance on the financial aid application would still deter many students from applying, even if they're actually eligible.
Put simply, pulling students out of school does nothing to keep them away from drugs and out of the criminal justice system.
Souder has been talking about changing his law for several years now, but hasn't done anything to actually make it happen. This shows that while he's more than happy to talk the talk, he doesn't care enough about the victims of his law to truly walk the walk.
This past January, the congressionally appointed Advisory Committee on Student Financial Assistance recommended that Souder's law be repealed. They called his law "irrelevant" and said that the drug question "...add[s] complexity to the form and can deter some students from applying for financial aid." Congress should follow the committee's recommendation and repeal the HEA Drug Provision in full.
It's time for Rep. Souder to come clean and admit that writing the HEA Drug Provision was a horrible mistake. His new proposal is simply a diversion meant to fool voters into thinking he cares about students. Thousands of young people like me continue to be unnecessarily hurt by Souder's wrongheaded law every year and his new proposal won't help many of them.