An addiction shouldn't cost you a college degree

An addiction shouldn't cost you a college degree
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We’ll never know exactly how many people with drug convictions have seen their dreams of a college degree brought to an end due to the federal government’s withholding of financial aid. While hundreds of thousands have had their aid applications rejected, that number doesn’t capture the countless others who expected rejection and didn’t even bother applying.  With 1.6 million Americans arrested for drug law violations annually, the true count of affected individuals is likely staggering.

This discrimination against those with addictions has been woven into the fabric of the financial aid system for over 20 years now. However, last week the House Education & Labor Committee approved the Financial Aid Fairness for Students Act, which would end this unjust policy.

If approved by Congress, it would finally allow those with addictions the same opportunity to seek a better life through higher education as everyone else. 


In 1998, as the opioid epidemic was emerging largely unnoticed in my hometown and other towns in Eastern Kentucky, a new front in the War on Drugs opened up on America’s college campuses.

That year, Congress amended the Higher Education Act by adding the Aid Elimination Penalty (AEP), which excluded individuals with drug convictions from receiving federal financial aid for higher education.  

As a result, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) was amended to include a question about past drug convictions. Ineligibility for aid ranged from one year to indefinite based on the number and types of convictions. By 2003, when I was a high school student filling out the FAFSA, more than 41,000 students were being denied aid annually. 

At the time, my friends and I complained about the tedium of filling out the FAFSA, totally unaware that it was one of the most important bureaucratic exercises of our lives.  The resulting aid opened up a path to prosperity untrodden by many of our families, affording an opportunity for a permanent reprieve from the crushing grind of Appalachian poverty that had shackled them for generations.  With that aid and dedication to improving our lots, many of our life courses mercifully deviated from the near certain impoverishment that had awaited us amidst the onslaught of opioids into the region and the collapsing coal industry.

However, the door to a middle-class life was forever closed for some of my friends and family who had fallen prey to opioids and been convicted of drug offenses. As pharmaceutical executives lined their pockets, my loved ones found themselves not only imprisoned, but also greeted with disqualification from receiving financial aid upon their release. A college education — and a chance at a meaningful life without drugs — was no longer affordable without federal aid, so they abandoned their studies. Though I can’t say how their lives might have turned out had this not occurred, their existences now continue to be consumed by addiction and struggle. 


The societal damage wrought by the AEP was immediately apparent after its passage. Legislators and advocacy groups have unsuccessfully worked to repeal it ever since. In 2006, Congress narrowed its scope of disqualification to those who had been convicted of drug offenses while already receiving aid. Subsequently, the number of rejected applicants was reduced to approximately 1,000 annually, though many more remain deterred from applying due to unawareness of this change. 

Looking back now, it’s clear that the AEP was much more than just a policy misstep. It embodies everything we’ve gotten wrong in our approach to the drug problem. Even the legislation’s name reveals our society’s mistaken belief that punishment deters addiction, which has only saddled states with coffer draining, overflowing criminal justice systems.

While it still may be difficult for many in Washington to see just what the War on Drugs has devolved into, those of us from our country’s hollers, inner cities and reservations have long had an unobstructed view of how racial minorities and the poor bear its brunt. 

The AEP is no exception. It specifically targets poor individuals with addictions, since they are the ones who most need aid. Poverty is a significant risk factor for developing an addiction and also makes it much harder to recover from one. Therefore, by making it more difficult to obtain a college degree and secure a job with a living wage, the AEP likely prolonged the addictions of many affected individuals.

Similarly, though drug use among white students prior to and during college is higher than almost any other racial group, it is well established that racial minorities are much more frequently prosecuted for drug related charges. The FAFSA doesn’t collect data on race, but it’s safe to assume that a disproportionate number of disqualified individuals under the AEP are people of color.

Taking these facts and soaring tuition costs into consideration, the Financial Aid Fairness for Students Act’s sponsors have recognized that stripping aid from individuals with addictions costs our society much more than it saves. As the opioid epidemic rages on, there is hope that this is one issue where bipartisan consensus may no longer be elusive.

Allowing those struggling with addictions access to financial aid won’t solve our nation’s drug problems, but it’ll set a powerful example by proving that we’re capable of learning from our mistakes and making positive change, just like they are.

Brian Barnett M.D. is an addiction psychiatrist in Cleveland, Ohio.