ACLU Challenges Federal Law That Refuses Financial Aid to Students With Drug Convictions

March 22, 2006 12:00 am

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Law Creates Unfair Barrier to Education and Singles Out Working Class Americans, Says ACLU


ABERDEEN, SD –The American Civil Liberties Union filed a lawsuit today challenging the constitutionality of a federal law that denies financial aid to any college student convicted of a drug offense.

“This law creates an unfair and irrational barrier to education and singles out working class Americans,” said Adam Wolf, a staff attorney with the ACLU Drug Law Reform Project. “Closing the campus gates denies these students a crucial chance to get themselves back on track by staying in school.”

The ACLU’s lawsuit, SSDP v. Spellings, asks the court to strike down a provision of the Higher Education Act (HEA), which has blocked financial aid to hundreds of thousands of would-be students since its implementation in 2000. The HEA was enacted more than 40 years ago in order to disburse aid for higher education to students based on need.

The aid elimination provision refuses financial aid to students convicted of a drug offense while in school and receiving aid. Prior to the provision’s enactment, judges had the ability to revoke student aid as part of the sentence for a drug conviction, but chose not to do so in 99.8 percent of cases. Congress added the aid elimination provision to the HEA in 2000 in order to make denial of aid mandatory in all cases.

According to the U.S. Department of Education, approximately 63 percent of American students attending post-secondary institutions received financial aid under the HEA during the 2003-04 academic year. The average award covered three-quarters of the student’s academic expenses. Approximately 14 million Americans apply for federal financial aid annually.

The ACLU’s legal papers point out that such a ban unconstitutionally punishes people twice for the same offense, violating the double jeopardy clause of the Fifth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. According to the ACLU, the ban also irrationally designates a class of people, those with drug convictions, as unworthy of educational aid, violating the equal protection guarantee of the Fifth Amendment’s due process clause. Part of the Bill of Rights, the Fifth Amendment protects Americans from federal government overreach.

The ACLU brought its lawsuit as a class action on behalf of thousands of students nationwide who will be denied aid under the provision. Among them are several individual students and a national organization, Students for Sensible Drug Policy (SSDP), whose membership includes students affected by the law. SSDP has lobbied for repeal of the aid elimination provision since its passage in 2000.

“Young people should not be doubly punished for a single misstep,” said Kris Krane, Executive Director of Students for Sensible Drug Policy. “Students who are forced to drop out of school are more likely to abuse drugs. Providing continued access to education is the best way to ensure they become productive taxpaying members of society.”

Another criticism of the law, cited in the ACLU’s legal papers, is its disproportionate effect on working class students, who rely on financial aid to complete their educations. Wealthy students, who can afford tuition, are entirely insulated from the law, while those less well off, the very people the HEA was designed to help, risk losing access to education.

The aid elimination provision of the HEA has been roundly criticized by more than 200 prominent health and education organizations, including the American Public Health Association, the American Federation of Teachers, the American Bar Association and the Association for Addiction Professionals.

“Education is one of the wisest investments we can make in America’s future,” said Jennifer Ring, Executive Director of the ACLU of the Dakotas. “The aid elimination provision is unfair and heavy-handed and should be taken off the books completely.”

Margaret Spellings, Secretary of the U.S. Department of Education, is named as the defendant. Spellings is officially charged with implementing the HEA’s aid elimination provision.

SSDP v. Spellings was filed in the U.S. District Court for the District of South Dakota.

The ACLU complaint may be viewed online at:

SSDP’s report on the state-by-state impact of the penalty can be found at:

For a list of organizations supporting full repeal of the aid elimination provision, see:

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