How the War on Drugs Kept Black Men Out of College

A new study finds that federal drug policy didn’t just send more black men to jail—it also locked them out of higher education.

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The War on Drugs locked up thousands of black men, and a new study finds that it may have also locked many out of the college classroom—and all the benefits that come with a college degree.

There was a time when black men’s college enrollment was gaining ground, as compared to white men’s. From 1980 to 1985, college enrollment among black men ages 18 to 24 grew slightly faster than it did for their white peers.

However, the upward trend started to reverse for black men after the passage of the Anti–Drug Abuse Act of 1986. According to the study, the probability a black man would enroll in college declined by 10 percent due to the passage of the law, from 22 percent to 20 percent, after researchers controlled for other factors, such as changes in the state-level unemployment rates and the costs of college. The study, written by the University of California, Berkeley professor Tolani Britton, appears to be the first to establish a direct link between ’80s drug laws and college achievement.

Decreased college enrollment has life-long consequences. Only 24 percent of prisoners have some college education, compared with 48 percent of the general public. Without a college degree, the odds of obtaining stable, well-paying employment are even lower; bachelor’s degree holders earn $21,632 more a year than individuals with only a high-school diploma, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

As the government spent more money sending black men to prison, it devoted fewer resources to programs that would have helped the formerly incarcerated reenter society after they were released. In 1996, Bill Clinton’s administration passed a law barring drug felons from support services such as food stamps and welfare. Without the added economic security these programs provide, the formerly incarcerated are likely to struggle to pay for college on their own: 44 percent of community-college students are employed part- or full-time.

The War on Drugs also includes a slate of policies that make it nearly impossible for someone with a drug conviction to access financial aid for college. In 1994, the Clinton administration passed the Violent Crime Control and Law Enforcement Act, which made prisoners ineligible for Pell grants, educational grants that help low-income people pay for postsecondary education— including college programs specifically offered in prisons. In addition, the 1998 aid-elimination amendment to the Higher Education Act denied any federal aid to students who were convicted on drug-related charges while receiving  federal aid, further limiting financial aid to drug felons.* While Pell grants were experimentally reintroduced to some prisoners in 2015 by Barack Obama’s administration, most incarcerated and formerly incarcerated people are still ineligible for federal aid today.

What’s more, prior convictions can block students from admission to college. Some colleges ask for a criminal history in their application process, and studies have found that having a conviction dramatically decreases the likelihood of admission, even when controlling for all other factors.

Without a college degree, steady employment, and support services, formerly incarcerated people struggle to rebuild their life. Fifty percent of felons are rearrested, and 25 percent are re-incarcerated within eight years of their initial release from prison. Access to education could lower these high recidivism rates. Prison education has been found to reduce re-incarceration by 13 percentage points and increase the odds of employment by 13 percent.

These prison education programs also benefit society. According to the Vera Institute of Justice, a nonprofit research institute that advocates against mass incarceration, the programs save American taxpayers $366 million a year by reducing recidivism; increase public safety by reducing crime; and support businesses by providing a trained workforce.

However, only 6 percent of incarcerated people have access to a college program at their institution today. Programs such as Sinclair Community College at Dayton Correctional Institute and the Prison University Project at San Quentin State Prison, where I previously taught a course, provide college education to inmates. But these programs are limited without federal funding, relying mostly on state-correctional-department support, volunteers, and philanthropy to run effectively. Federal funding of prison education can provide consistency to these programs.

Critics ask why federal money should be spent on educating felons while law-abiding citizens also have limited access to higher education. Initiatives such as Elizabeth Warren’s free-college proposal can address this issue for Americans broadly, but ultimately fail to address the specific, damaging effects of the War on Drugs. “We as a society need to increase not just access but success in postsecondary education for people who are incarcerated or formerly-incarcerated,” Britton says. “Because that is one of the few ways for people to change not only their outcomes, but their children’s life outcomes.”

*  This article has been corrected to reflect that formerly incarcerated individuals are not ineligible for Pell grants. Additionally, only students who were on federal aid at the time of a drug-related conviction are ineligible for aid, not all students with these convictions.