Student Life

Jaipuriar: Decriminalizing recreational drug use could even the financial aid field

One crime, two punishments: that’s often the case when students with past drug offenses apply for federal financial aid to pursue higher education.

The Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) looks at many factors when determining aid eligibility — income, family background and, even more controversially, drug convictions. If students are convicted of possession or sale of illegal drugs while receiving federal aid, they automatically become ineligible to receive funding for one to three years, and sometimes indefinitely.

But a group of senators in Washington, D.C. is trying to change that. The new legislation, called the Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success Act (SUCCESS), would repeal the law that suspends aid eligibility for students with drug infractions. Essentially, it would eliminate the drug record question entirely.

Since 2000, when it was mandated that students disclose past drug offenses on the FAFSA, more than 200,000 students have lost federal aid eligibility, according to Drug Policy Alliance. This phenomenon also plays a role in the college admissions process because many schools ask students to disclose criminal history to ensure campus safety.

Reforming the criminal justice system through these changes in higher education will offer many young adults a second chance at a brighter future. The current FAFSA rule disproportionately harms minority and lower income students, since wealthy families aren’t as dependent on financial aid. And because recreational drug use is common on college campuses, it is unfair to only punish those have the misfortune of getting caught.

Because substance use disorders are stigmatized, people who suffer with them are often viewed negatively and punished rather than understood as struggling humans, trying to deal with life's difficulties.
Paul Caldwell, associate professor of social work in SU's David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics

In fact, the National Institute on Drug Use shows that heavy alcohol consumption, including binge drinking, is higher among college students compared to their non-college peers. And according to the same survey, even marijuana use has tripled on college campuses within the past twenty years.

Of course, major criminal activities should be scrutinized and evaluated on a case-by-case basis; however, the majority of college kids are just that — college kids. And while illegal substance abuse should call for some type of penalty, entire futures shouldn’t be put in jeopardy because of a minor infraction. There’s a difference between occasionally getting high with friends on the weekend and running a drug ring out of your dorm room.

Even the scope of the violations are magnified on college applications and FAFSA because forms often aren’t interpreted correctly, said Alan Rosenthal, co-director of justice strategies at the Center for Community Alternatives, a New York state advocacy program for youth justice.

Rosenthal explained the complicated nuances of intrastate laws, which are difficult for even for experienced attorneys like him to navigate, much less admissions officers.

For instance, two 16-year-old students could commit a misdemeanor drug offense in New York state and New Jersey, but because the age of criminality is lower in New York, it would count as a conviction. But, in New Jersey, that individual would not have a conviction on their record because they would be considered a minor.

The FAFSA form, along with many college applications, is too standardized to account for variation in recorded illegal drug involvement and student history. This discrepancy unfairly leaves students in the gray area of the legal system. And with millions of students applying for college admission and financial aid in the United States, if gatekeepers were to implement this bill, it would stop these futures from falling through the cracks.

It can be argued that SUCCESS is a “free pass” for these students to escape the repercussions of drug use. However, young people are still legally and morally responsible for their actions and they still have a wave of other obstacles to face, including a damaged permanent record, background checks and respective school policies.

It’s easy to view these students as criminals on the surface, but substance abuse can be a serious problem for some students, which is often intertwined with mental health struggles. Substance abuse can be a coping mechanism for stress, depression and anxiety. On the flip side, it can also amplify mental illness due to the pressure of snap judgments from college officials and financial aid officers, in addition to the overall social stigma.

Paul Caldwell, an associate professor of social work in the David B. Falk College of Sport and Human Dynamics at Syracuse University, said this victim-blaming and the denying of opportunities to these students ends up costing society more in the long run.

“Because substance use disorders are stigmatized, people who suffer with them are often viewed negatively and punished rather than understood as struggling humans, trying to deal with life’s difficulties,” Caldwell said, in an email.

And as Rosenthal said, the greatest number of drug convictions are for the lowest level offenses, such as possession of marijuana, an offense that costs a fine of about $100 for first time offenders. Though it seems like a small amount, it can end up costing thousands of dollars in financial aid and leave a dent in a student’s overall educational ambitions.

Recreational drug use is notorious on college campuses, and it is naive to think otherwise. As said best by Caldwell, “A person who is already struggling with complicated life problems becomes further disadvantaged by being denied opportunities, like support for education.”

Rather than criminalizing them, empathizing with these students is the key to reform. They should be seen as young people who have their whole lives ahead of them, not delinquents who erred once only to be punished forever.

Rashika Jaipuriar is a freshman broadcast and digital journalism major. Her column appears weekly. She can be reached at rjaipuri@syr.edu and followed on Twitter @rashikajpr.

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