Quantrez Sawyer, 33, takes notes during during an entrepreneurship class at Macomb Correctional Facility (2013).
Todd McInturf/Associated Press
study / justice

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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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 and formerly incarcerated individuals ineligible for Pell grants, educational grants that help low-income people pay for postsecondary education. In addition, the 1998 aid-elimination amendment to the Higher Education Act denied any federal aid to students with drug-related convictions, further limiting financial aid to drug felons. 
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