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DeVos, Congress asked to make those with drug convictions aid-eligible

U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos. Photo courtesy of the U.S. Department of Education.

The Institute for Higher Education Policy, along with a group of 37 research, advocacy and justice organizations and professionals, is pushing for changes in higher education policy that would improve educational opportunities for incarcerated individuals and those with drug convictions.

In a letter last month, the group urged U.S. Secretary of Education Betsy DeVos and policymakers to reinstate Federal Pell Grant eligibility for incarcerated students. The letter also asked to eliminate Question 23 on the Free Application for Federal Student Aid, which asks if the applicant has had a drug conviction.

The letter cited a 2013 study from the RAND Corporation that found when incarcerated students participate in education programs, repeat offense rates drop by 43 percent, meaning dollars invested in prison education can lead to saving four or five times as much in re-imprisonment costs.

“We recognize the U.S. Department of Education’s important role in affirming and uplifting national educational priorities,” the letter said. “We hope we can count on your continued advocacy for these often-marginalized students who are simply seeking to reach their full potential.”

Over 1,000 FAFSA applicants were deemed fully ineligible because of drug-related convictions or failure to answer Question 23 during the 2016-17 student aid cycle, Inside Higher Ed found.

U.S. Senators Bob Casey, D-P.A., and Orrin Hatch, R-U.T., introduced the Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success Act in February 2016 that would have removed questions about prior drug charges and repealed the section of the Higher Education Act of 1965 that strips federal aid for college students convicted of a drug offense.

“Higher education is the stepping stone to economic security. A youthful mistake shouldn’t keep a person out of college and the middle class,” Casey said in a February 2016 press release. “If someone is forced to drop out of college because they can’t get federal financial aid then it’s more likely that person will encounter the criminal justice system in the future. By giving these young students a second chance we can measurably change their lives for the better.”

The policies in the SUCCESS Act and the efforts encouraged by 38 signees would affect the upcoming reauthorization of the HEA that both the U.S. Senate and House relevant committees have been considering bills for.

U.S. Rep. Virginia Foxx, R-N.C., introduced the House’s reauthorization bill, the Promoting Real Opportunity, Success and Prosperity through Education Reform Act, in December, which the Committee on Education and the Workforce reported to the House after a party-line vote of 23 to 17.

The Senate Health, Education, Labor and Pensions Committee has not yet released their own reauthorization bill, but U.S. Sen. Patty Murray, D-W.A., released a statement March 5 saying legislators must strengthen provisions to hold schools accountable for students’ access and success.

Betty Aldworth, executive director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy, which was founded in response to the addition of Question 23 to the FAFSA, said her organization wants a policy approach that is rooted in safety, justice and education. She also said the SSDP believes all language related to drug convictions should be removed from the Higher Education Act.

“Perhaps thousands and thousands and thousands more young people will be able to apply for federal financial aid, attend college and have their most successful adult lives,” she said.


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