When college students apply for federal financial aid, they are asked whether they have been convicted of possessing or selling illegal drugs while receiving federal student aid in the past. If a student answered "yes" or does not answer the question, the federal government can suspend that student's federal financial aid, which can include grants, work study programs, or student loans. Students whose federal financial aid is suspended can, however, become eligible again if they complete a drug rehabilitation program or drug tests. Although juvenile offenses will not jeopardize a student's federal financial aid, minor drug offenses will. First-time possession of marijuana for example makes a student potentially ineligible for one year. Selling drugs is arguably one thing, but many college students are caught with small amounts of marijuana in their dorm rooms, in their apartments, or even on their person. Although still illegal in most states, many would contend possessing a small amount of marijuana does not in and of itself make a college student a less valuable member of the school community, just as it does not in and of itself make a college student a bad citizen.
The law that disqualifies students for financial aid was created in 1998 and was more expansive than the current version. Students who had convictions before they received financial aid were initially covered by the prior version of the law. In 2006, the law was modified to apply to students who were convicted of drug offenses (even minor offenses) while receiving federal financial aid. Over 1,100 students were deemed ineligible to receive federal financial aid from 2013-2014. A competing concern is that the law, even in its present version, disproportionally affects minority students.
Within the next week, a bipartisan group of senators plans to introduce legislation that, if passed, will repeal a law that is now viewed by many as a relic of the war on drugs. The legislation, known as The Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success Act, or SUCCESS Act, is sponsored by Senators Bob Casey (a Pennsylvania Democrat), Orrin Hatch (a Utah Republican) and Sheldon Whitehouse (a Rhode Island Democrat). The SUCCESS Act, as proposed, repeals the language that denies students of federal financial aid because of a drug offense and removes the drug conviction question from the FAFSA form (which is required to receive financial aid).
Speaking to his motivation for the SUCCESS Act, Senator Casey stated, "A youthful mistake shouldn't keep a person out of college and the middle class." He added, “There's now an emerging bipartisan consensus on the need to reform our criminal justice system and ensure students who have already paid their debt to society are not punished twice." Senator Hatch declared, "It is not the Education Department's job to punish students for drug infractions. Statistics and common sense tell us it is bad policy to deny students education if we want to reduce drug abuse and encourage young people to become successful."