Young People with Drug Convictions Often Never go to College due to Financial Aid Ban

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Those convicted of drug charges at a young age might face a life of perpetual struggle, as they are often unable to attend college due to a law preventing federal financial aid following a drug conviction.

The National Bureau of Economic Research recently published research indicating that young people with drug convictions will likely not attend college.

Professors Michael Lovenheim and Emily Owens analyzed the data and found that the 1998 amendment to the Higher Education Act, which prohibits students with drug convictions from getting Pell grants and other funds, often resulted in them never attending college.

Most at risk were young people from urban areas whose parents did not go to college.

“Importantly, we did not find that the law deterred young people from committing drug felonies nor did it substantively change the probability that high school students with drug convictions graduated from high school,” the study said.

Professor Lovenheim has studied the effects of financial aid for years, but it is often difficult to see the correlation between college attendance and financial aid availability. With this study, though, the correlation was clear.

“One thing that surprised us was how closely the responses hewed to how the law is structured,” Lovenheim said. “It’s amazing, the way the law works, you’re not allowed to receive financial aid for several years depending on the type of offense it is. What we find is a large effect on behaviors of students not going to college for two years.”

“It seems very perverse in a way to say these are kids who want to put their lives on track and go to college and put barriers on that.” He also noted that young people convicted of drug convictions tend to be male and of an ethnic minority group, usually from a lower-income family and in need to financial assistance to attend college.

While many think excluding these people from receiving financial aid may help the federal budget, Lovenheim argues that disallowing these students from receiving aid doesn’t make a difference in the country’s financial situation.

“If you excluded every person with a drug conviction from federal financial aid completely, the effect on the federal budget would be undetectable,” he said.

Professor Owens said blocking financial aid temporarily for people convicted of drug crimes results in a longer punishment sentence than necessary.

“To increase the generosity of a program that is supposed to help students who want to go to college is a good way to encourage them to go to college,” Owens said. “It’s not the case that these students have other sources of income to finance college.”

She also pointed out that there is evidence showing prisoners who received Pell grants while behind bars, and who received their degree behind bars, were more likely to remain out of trouble when they were released.