Students nationwide fight aid penalty for drug convictions

Students nationwide fight aid penalty for drug convictions

By Kate Augusto

Student governments at universities across the country are teaming up to fight what they see as discrimination against students convicted of drug offenses. While Northeastern’s student government has not yet sought legislation against the Aid Elimination Penalty, some students are looking to start a Northeastern chapter of Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP).

The penalty is a controversial 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act that forbids students with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid, which some say works against the goals of higher education.

“We’d like to see a re-shifting of priorities in terms of drug policies with more emphasis on things that do work like treatment and education, and less emphasis on things that don’t work like prisons and punishment,” said Tom Angell, Campaigns Director for SSDP, a non-profit advocacy group.

Angell said the penalty is unfair because it can prevent students from furthering their educations. SSDP advocates for a variety of drug policy issues affecting young people, but is primarily concerned with repealing the Aid Elimination Penalty. The law originally penalized all students convicted of a drug offense, but was changed in 2006 to only affect those who are charged with an offense while in college.

When filling out the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) students must disclose whether they have ever been charged with a drug offense. About 200,000 students nationwide have been denied federal aid since the penalty was instated, according to a report by SSDP in April 2006.

Seamus Harreys, Northeastern dean of student financial services, said an additional unknown number of students with convictions don’t even try to get aid.

A student with a drug offense could lose up to $10,000 in federal financial aid, the maximum amount given per student, which would have a greater effect on lower and middle-income families, because the bank loans needed to supplement the aid can have an interest rate of almost double, Harreys said.

In the last five years, only one student at Northeastern applying for aid had a drug conviction, and the student ended up being eligible for other aid through the university, Harreys said. Students with convictions can still receive financial aid from their college, and in some states, from the state government.

“Northeastern’s job is to educate students

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