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What did you worry about in college? Many students lose sleep over whether their degree is marketable, and how they will pay off their student loan debt. Those of us who have lived through it know that these are are legitimate concerns — but they’re also lucky ones.

 

There are many more young adults and teens out there, ones you never hear about, who want nothing more than the chance to worry over repaying their student loans.

 

Very few students realize that their youthful experimentation with drugs could cost them their education. A single convicted drug offense is all it takes to become ineligible for federal financial aid — everything from grants, to loans, to even work-study opportunities.

 

If that seems like an extreme reaction to a one-time offense, you’re right. And importantly, neither the American people nor any congressional committee ever directly voted this policy into law. In 1998, Representative Mark Souder slipped this damning amendment into the renewal of the Higher Education Act, a bill designed, ironically enough, to provide federal financial aid for college students in need.

 

Because of that one secretive amendment, over 189,000 would-be students have had their requests for federal aid rejected since the year 2000 alone. And with a child arrested for a drug offense every three minutes, that number isn’t going to shrink any time soon.

 

Sadly, kids who are convicted of a drug offense are disproportionately likely to be poor, underprivileged, and lacking support systems. For most of them, being denied financial aid puts their dreams of college entirely out of reach. No matter their talent or drive, they simply cannot afford a plan B.

 

Right now there’s nowhere else they can turn. I want to change that.

 

The most poignant problem with this policy, of course, is that kids who are denied the chance to learn, grow, and mature in college are far more likely to become part of the problem instead part of the solution. Many of these rejected applicants are kids who overcame real obstacles to even view higher education as a possibility.

 

High school graduates from low income families are already 30 percentage points less likely to go on to attend college after graduation, and those who do are far more likely than their high-income peers to opt for community colleges and for-profit universities, both of which generally have lower graduation rates — and all of these stacked odds are before you throw in the first time drug offense and lack of financial aid.

 

All of this matters a lot more when you remember that 65 percent of all jobs are expected to require a college degree within the next three years, and that number is rapidly on the rise. Having a degree is becoming an absolute necessity, and those who’ve made it through college average double the salary of those who haven’t.

 

For those who do have the chance to pursue higher education, the difference can be incredible. When a child born into the bottom fifth of the income distribution earns a college degree, they are fifty percent more likely to make it out of the bottom and join the middle class, and they’re almost four times more likely to transform their circumstances entirely and become a true rags-to-riches story.

 

For kids with one-time offenses on their records, college could change everything. By continuing their education, they would have the opportunity to find new and deep interests, to experience new perspectives, and, most importantly, to equip themselves with the life skills, professional qualifications and expertise they need to defy poverty.

 

Instead, when these promising students are denied the opportunity for higher education they are far more likely feel disenfranchised and discarded by society, to lack marketable experience, skills, and job prospects, and to live in poverty — all of which are risk factors for crime and drugs, creating an endless negative feedback loop.

 

To truly understand the hopeless situation that these kids find themselves in, you have to remember that most of them grew up in the inner cities with very little outside perspective. They don’t have the support systems that many of us take for granted. Drugs are all around them, unavoidable.

 

It’s hard to assign blame when we know students are far, far more likely to try drugs if their parents are using, or if their parents are uninvolved and uninterested in what goes on under their roof. The most predictive factors of a youthful drug offense are far outside of the child’s own control. When they’re born into it, they hardly stand a chance. Even then, many of these students never re-offend. But the damage is done — one mistake can paralyze a student’s entire future.

 

But what if we could do something to change this, and offer hope for a better future to the kids who need it most?

 

If, despite all the odds, a student has the motivation and the ability to change their circumstances, shouldn’t we make sure they have the chance to try?

 

My dream is to create an organization to offer bright, hard working students the chance to see how far their drive can take them. I am working to create an organization that will offer scholarships to youth with a one-time drug offense that precludes them from federal aid.

 

Students will enter a rigorous application process: essay contests will determine who has the acumen and reading skills that college will require  — and those who don’t will be connected with other resources that can help. An interview process will assess how likely applicants are to be accepted to college, as well as whether they have the systems and resources in place to be successful. And students who are awarded scholarships will attend college right here in Georgia so that our best and brightest stick around to contribute directly to the local community.

 

That’s the vision. I’m looking for help of all kinds — great ideas, new partnerships, and your passionate support.

 

Our national community has failed these kids. Our local community stands to benefit by nurturing their talent and economic contributions. And I believe these same communities can work together to change the narrative for the children who need us.