President Joseph Biden last week announced a long-awaited plan to forgive student loan debt, saying the move will provide needed relief and narrow the racial wealth gap. But vestiges of the failed War on Drugs are likely to block the aid from many people who need it most, the Associated Press reported on Tuesday.
The soaring cost of education in the United States has led to total student loan debt of more than $1.6 trillion. When he released his student loan forgiveness plan last week, Biden noted that the debt burden “is especially heavy on Black and Hispanic borrowers, who on average have less family wealth to pay for it.”
Under the plan released by the president last week, borrowers making less than $125,000 can have up to $10,000 of their federal student loan debt forgiven. For those who received financial aid as students in the form of a federal Pell Grant, the amount of loan forgiveness available doubles to $20,000.
But under federal financial aid policies put in place at the height of the War on Drugs and promoted by Biden, who was a U.S. senator at the time, access to Pell Grants was denied for convicted drug offenders, who were required to disclose their convictions by checking a box on financial aid applications. The policy caused financial aid to be denied or delayed for hundreds of thousands of students, many of whom turned to more expensive and sometimes predatory private student loans.
Racial Disparity in Drug Enforcement
Because of the racial disparity in the enforcement of the nation’s drug laws, the federal financial aid policy disproportionately impacted people of color, particularly young Black and Latino men. The policy remained in effect for 25 years, when it was repealed by Congress in 2020. But during that time, incarceration rates for people of color increased dramatically.
Pell Grants have been one of the federal government’s effective student financial aid programs, with studies showing that they pay educational expenses for more than half of Black students and nearly half of Hispanic students. But because the War on Drugs caused a disproportionate number of Black and Latino students to be ineligible for a Pell Grant, student loan forgiveness tied to them will also be distributed disproportionately. Drug policy reform advocates say Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan should address the inherent unfairness.
“I think there’s a particular onus on this administration and on this president to be part of the solution for issues that he was very deeply involved in,” said Melissa Moore, the director of civil systems reform at Drug Policy Alliance.
The policy denied Pell Grants and federal student loans to a generation of former drug offenders, many of whom borrowed from private lenders instead. According to a report on private loan debt from the Student Borrower Protection Center, Black students are four times as likely as white students to struggle in repayment of private loans. But under Biden’s plan, they are not eligible for student loan relief. Moore believes the plan should include restorative justice provisions to make it fairer.
“For people who previously would have had to check that box, there should be some mechanism by which, if you were excluded in the past, you are prioritized now for relief,” Moore said.
DeAnna Hoskins was lucky. Her drug conviction did not cause a loss of eligibility for federal student loans or Pell Grants because she applied after Congress repealed the ban on aid for those with drug convictions. Others were helped by a 2006 change by Congress that limited the ban to those who were convicted of a drug crime while receiving financial aid. But even with that change, the policy caused hundreds of students to drop out after losing aid, experts say.
“The ’94 crime bill was so comprehensive in the destruction that it did,” said Hoskins, the president of JustLeadershipUSA, a criminal justice reform group. She wants to know how Biden’s debt relief plan was developed, saying, “I feel like you’re piecemealing our liberation back to us.”