Federal Student Aid Access

At the Drug Policy Alliance we are committed to making sure that students convicted of drug law violations get a fair shot at a quality education.

In 1998, Congress passed the Souder amendment. This law denied federal aid to any student with a drug law conviction. In 2006, the law was amended to apply only to students who are enrolled in college and receiving financial aid at the time of their conviction. Still, one interaction with the criminal legal system can permanently destroy a student's future prospects.

The Souder amendment unfairly penalizes students who are not wealthy. Under this law, a drug conviction carries far more serious consequences for a student who depends on federal aid to afford their education than for a student who does not.

Steven's Story

Steven Mangual enrolled in college when he was incarcerated for a drug-related crime at the age of 21, and it was then that he discovered his love of learning. But his dream of achieving a college degree was thwarted when Congress passed the 1994 Crime Bill ending Pell grants (i.e. federal student aid) for incarcerated people. Steven was devastated when he found out that the door to higher education and greater opportunity had been slammed shut. Drug convictions are routinely used to deny educational opportunities for people at all stages of their education.

I enrolled in the college program. I didn't want to spend the rest of my life in prison. I had my GED, but that was it. I find out at that point that I wasn't able to get a college degree because they were gonna take away federal financial aid from us. Oh, man, it was horrible. Why would the war on drugs have anything to do with us using higher education as the only successful form of zero recidivism?

Learn more about how the drug war invades our schools at UprootingTheDrugWar.org.

Equal Access to Education

DPA believes the following principles when it comes to federal student aid access:

  • The Higher Education Act (HEA), which grants federal financial aid for students, was intended to assist students from low- and middle-income families. Students from wealthy families can afford to pay for tuition without public aid. They can often afford lawyers and private rehabilitation programs to avoid drug convictions in the first place. A denial of federal student aid as punishment for a drug law conviction is a penalty on the very students federal student aid is intended to help.
  • People of color are convicted of drug law violations at a much higher rate than white people, even though rates of drug use and sales are comparable across racial lines. A denial of federal student aid as punishment for a drug law conviction disproportionately restricts people of color from accessing education.
  • Students who might be found eligible for financial aid can be deterred from applying if the form asks about criminal background.
  • Drug use and sales will not be reduced by restricting access to education. In fact, students who are effectively forced to drop out of school due to drug charges are more likely to engage in illegal activity.
  • It is excessively punitive to take away access to education from someone who has already been sentenced through the criminal legal system.

DPA’s Work

The Drug Policy Alliance is working to repeal the Souder amendment. Students with drug convictions should be able to access the financial aid that could mean the difference between continuing their education and not. 

Federal Student Aid Access