Unfair restriction on college aid

From an editorial Wednesday in the New York Times:

About 200,000 people have been denied help with college costs since a draconian law denying government grants and loans to people with even minor drug offenses took effect in 2000. Congress narrowed the number of people covered in 2005, and now there are bipartisan bills in the House and the Senate that would finally repeal this unfair and counterproductive rule.

The student aid restriction grew out of the drug war hysteria of the late 1990s. At the time, Congress believed that the drug problem was confined mainly to poor, minority neighborhoods and thought that the country could arrest and punish its way to a solution. Under the initial law, people convicted of state or federal drug crimes became ineligible for aid for specific periods of time – and in some cases permanently – based partly on the number of offenses. Incredibly, the law did not distinguish between felonies and misdemeanors.

The restriction is unnecessarily punitive. And by preventing people with convictions from getting the college degree that has become the price of admission to the new economy, it surely contributes to recidivism.

Since the change Congress made in 2005 took effect, only people who are enrolled in school and receiving federal aid at the time of their offense are disqualified. This means fewer people now lose aid, but it makes the law no less unfair.