Pass the roach, and pass on college?

Liam Julian

As the law now stands, young adults convicted of a drug-related offense are ineligible for federal student aid. It sounds reasonable on the surface. But ultimately, the policy fails on both economic and moral grounds. And it actively works against the main goal of K-12 education: getting students to college and keeping them there (provided they do the work and meet standards).

Defenders of the policy, embedded in the Higher Education Act which is now up for review, make compelling arguments. Reasonable people agree that drug use is unhealthy (not to mention illegal). Withholding student aid dollars from drug abusers, the law's proponents say, establishes an added disincentive to dabble in illicit substances. Economic theory says that slapping an extra "tax" on drugs-in this case, the loss of federal student aid-will lower their appeal to youngsters. Such an action is good for both the government and for dissuaded potheads.

And then there's the emotional argument: the government should not be paying those who break its laws, especially because drugs cost money-money that could be going toward tuition and books (or food and job training).

But here's why those arguments fail.

Eighteen-year-olds are not noted for their rational thinking. It's naïve to assume that the high school senior, offered some marijuana at a party, will base his or her inhalation decision on calculations of opportunity cost and forthcoming Pell Grant dollars.

That lack of maturity doesn't excuse the 18-year-old's behavior. But it does challenge the economic justification behind withholding student aid from convicted drug users. If the fear of being arrested and temporarily jailed doesn't stop an impulsive young person from enjoying a little weed, are we to believe that concerns over future college loans will do the trick? That's just bad thinking.

So while the federal government has set up a dubious incentive for young people to shun drugs, it has inadvertently created a direct incentive-by withholding money-for young people to avoid college.

Not smart. The federal government ought to be funneling as many well-prepared students into college as it can. Even those who engaged in a few youthful follies. Instead, it's actively working against its own interests and against that laudable goal.

And the problem is compounded because those who are most likely to be hurt by this law are those for whom college is most important.

The upper middle class student caught with drugs won't even notice the lost federal student aid. That's because most affluent students aren't eligible for federal grant dollars in the first place. Pell Grants-the most generous federal student aid-are based on financial need. The students who stand to lose out are lower-income kids.

Federal officials should not proclaim their commitment to bringing more low-income and minority students into colleges while they enforce a punitive law that unfairly targets, and withholds student aid from, precisely those groups. It's enough of a stretch for the government to tie aid dollars solely to drug offenses (students convicted of drunken driving, for example, remain eligible for full federal aid), but it's completely indefensible when such a measure will significantly affect the college prospects of only lower-income students. That's simply self-defeating. 

Our nation should be working to get young people into college. If a student is arrested with illegal substances, fine. Let him pay the price in time behind bars or in heavy fines. But putting barriers in front of the university gate is misguided. Such a policy can have no positive effects.