Saturday, February 9, 2013

Using College as Punishment: What Problem Are We Trying to Solve?

People on both the left and the right (usually at different times) often accuse the federal government of trying to act like a parent, telling "children" (US citizens) what they can and can't do and what's good or not good for them. Terms like "paternalism" and "nanny state" get bandied around a lot, usually intended as insults when one doesn't like what the government is doing.

Sometimes, there is some truth to these accusations. This is particularly true in the realm of crime and punishment, in which there have been (broadly speaking) two warring philosophies for generations: a "reformist" argument and a "punishment/deterrence" argument. The former suggests that, if you want to cut down on crime, you need to reform the conditions in society that contribute to it and help individual criminals reform so they don't continue committing crimes. The latter argues that it is better to prevent crime through deterrence and fear, primarily the fear of punishment.

This argument plays itself out all the time, in all kinds of different contexts. Federal regulations on higher education and financial aid are no exception. Federal law bars the awarding of financial aid to any student convicted of a drug-related offense - presumably as an intended deterrent to students who might otherwise do or get involved with drugs.

The problem is that students who make the mistake of getting involved with drugs in high school can be delayed in going to college, or may not go at all, as a new study has found. Which means that young people who have started down the wrong road are being told, in effect, "we want you to stay away from drugs and crime and be a productive citizen. But we're going to close off one of the main avenues for you to get there. Good luck."

As a policy intended to cut down on drug use and drug-related crime, this is in the long run likely to make things worse, not better. People like to refer to drugs like marijuana as "gateway" drugs, and it's true that involvement with illegal drugs can be a gateway to more crime. But why "punish" people who have taken a step into that gateway by shutting down other options? Doesn't that make it more likely that they will move further into criminal activity? The Feds - who have a terrible track record of late on making rational decisions on higher education - need to rethink this, gather some serious data, and reconsider whether an effort to use federal aid to deter drug use is likely to help or to harm.

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