Advancing Financial Aid Reform through the Proposed SUCCESS Act

On February 11, 2016, Senators Bob Casey (D-PA) and Orrin Hatch (R-UT) introduced the bipartisan Stopping Unfair Collateral Consequences from Ending Student Success (SUCCESS) Act. The bill would remove a key barrier to federal financial aid for individuals who have been involved in the criminal justice system. Under the new law, people with drug-related offenses that occurred while receiving federal student aid would be eligible for federal grants, loans, and work study aid. Additionally, the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) would no longer ask about applicants’ previous convictions for the sale or possession of illegal drugs – a question that can be off-putting.

The ban on federal financial aid enacted by the 1998 Aid Elimination Penalty to the Higher Education Act barred access to at least 200,000 students between 2000 and 2006. A 2008 amendment to the Higher Education Act softened the restriction, but maintained its marginalizing effect. Built on the premise of mitigating collateral consequences, the proposed SUCCESS Act would remove both the remaining barrier and the effect. It is also a timely effort in the Obama Administration’s push to reform the criminal justice system and expand postsecondary access. The Administration’s recent Second Chance Pell pilot program has highlighted the importance of both of these efforts by expanding access to federal Pell grants and college courses for incarcerated individuals – a move that has proven recidivism reducing implications.

These reforms could also help remove barriers to postsecondary education for low-income people, particularly those of color, who have been disproportionately incriminated. Young men of color, specifically, are the most over criminalized population for drug offenses. Combined with other structural inequalities, this creates significant challenges for postsecondary and workforce access. Removing the penalties and stigma for drug convictions could help move the needle on racial equity.

CLASP strongly supports increasing access to federal financial aid in ways that benefit nontraditional students, as noted in our recommendations for the reauthorization of the HEA. The SUCCESS Act would align with the goals of our recommendations to increase financial aid access for those who stand to benefit the most. By making financial aid responsive to today’s students, who are far more likely to be nontraditional than in any prior generation, we can provide a fairer path to college degree attainment and economic success.  It’s the right thing to do—for students and for the country.