YALE UNIVERSITY decided last month to offer supplemental financial aid to
students who have lost their eligibility for funding from the federal
government due to a drug conviction. This decision places Yale at the
forefront of a national movement to combat the injustices of the war on drugs.
Students convicted of any kind of drug offense, misdemeanor or felony, are
denied federal financial aid under the Drug Free Student Aid provision of the
1998 amendments to the Higher Education Act. Nearly 50,000 students have lost
their aid since the law took effect. At least that many others have been able
to attend college and graduate school, despite drug convictions, simply
because they could afford to pay the tuition without financial aid.
Yale is the third university, after Swarthmore and Hampshire colleges, to
publicly acknowledge the injustice of this provision, which punishes
individuals for their inability to pay for school, not for their drug offense.
Not only does the drug provision of the Higher Education Act inflict extreme
hardship on low-income students, like most drug laws, the provision unfairly
targets poor students of color.
As a Yale graduate, I am well aware that Yale's new policy may affect few
applicants for financial aid to that University. Nevertheless, Yale's decision
is significant because it is grounded in moral principles and common decency
and thus broadcasts a message of national significance. Indeed, Yale's new
policy harks back to a similar commitment made by the University at the height
of the Vietnam War. Yale chose to supplement the financial aid of students who
were conscientious objectors to that war, and as a result, emerged as a
powerful, ethical voice across the country.
The drug provision of the Higher Education Act does nothing to reduce
problems associated with alcohol or drug use on college campuses and instead
imposes barriers to education for individuals for whom access to education
should be a top priority. While many students who attend Yale are regular drug
users of both licit and illicit drugs, more than 63 percent of those students
can afford to pay Yale's tuition of $30,000 a year and can also afford to use
drugs in the privacy of their own dorm rooms. Perhaps the biggest drug-related
problem facing colleges is that of alcohol -- a drug not covered by the Higher
The drug provision of the Higher Education Act is only one of several laws
that Congress recently has passed that create obstacles for persons in
recovery, such as the denial of housing and welfare benefits to individuals
convicted of a drug offense.
If one of the most prestigious universities in America is moved to fight
the injustice of this drug provision on its campus, then Congress should feel
obligated to revisit and reform the act on behalf of those individuals who
lack access to Yale's endowment. Even the original author of the drug
provision, U.S. Rep. Mark Souder, R-Ind., has noted that the bill has had an
impact that he never intended.
Congress should heed the example set by Yale's new policy, which
demonstrates the need for drug laws based on common sense, compassion and
justice, rather than ignorance, fear, prejudice and punishment.
Alexandra Cox, Yale Class of 2001, is a research assistant at Drug Policy Alliance's Office of Legal Affairs in Oakland.
©2002 San Francisco Chronicle