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Study Finds that War on Drugs Kept Black Men from Higher Education

by Scott Grammer

In April 2019 study by Universityof California, Berkeley professor Tolani Britton established a link between the so-called “War On Drugs,” embodied in the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986, and college enrollment by black men. Her research found that despite the fact that college enrollment for black men between 18 and 24 years old grew at a faster rate than for white males from 1980 to 1985, after the enactment of the draconian 1986 federal drug law, the odds that a black man would enroll in college dropped by 10 percent.

According to the study, “[b]etween 1980 and 1989, arrest[s] of Blacks for drug sales and manufacturing or use rose by 219% when compared to the increase in the arrest rate for Whites of 56%. This disparity in drug arrests by race was also reflected in the juvenile population.... Drug offense arrests among Black juveniles increased from 1985-1989 and remained stable from 1989-1992. Among White youths, rates decreased between 1985 and 1992.”

Those trends followed not only the passage of the 1986 law but an increase in anti-drug funding from $2.9 billion in 1986 to $4.8 billion in 1987. The study quoted a 1991 report by the U.S. Sentencing Commission that said, “non-Whites were more likely than Whites to receive a mandatory minimum sentence for similar crimes and ‘the greatest expected impact [in the federal prison population] could be attributed to the Anti-Drug Abuse Act of 1986.’” It also cited a 2001 study which found “that the largest federal sentencing disparities between Black individuals and White individuals occurred for drug trafficking offenses, after controlling for past criminal history. Ironically, much of this disparity was driven by departures from federal guidelines, whereby Black men were more likely than White men with similar criminal histories to receive punishments that were harsher than mandated federal penalties.”

Britton’s study pointed out that “[i]ncarceration for drug offenses could lead to underinvestment in human capital for young adults through numerous channels. Firstly, time in the criminal justice system impacts academic preparation, which might increase the psychic loss associated with additional years of education. Access to quality secondary and tertiary education within jails and prisons is limited, although studies have demonstrated that higher levels of education are associated with lower rates of recidivism....

“Secondly, incarceration limits access to funding for college. Incarcerated persons are ineligible for both federal Pell Grants and student loans while in prison, delaying, and possibly reducing the likelihood of college entry....

“Thirdly, drug convictions can limit a young adult’s ability to receive student aid from the government even after release.... Fourthly, involvement with the criminal justice system may have a dampening effect on the educational aspirations of youth. One study provided some evidence that being asked about imprisonment serves as a deterrent in applying for financial aid and college, given the discrimination against persons formerly incarcerated....

“Finally, young adults who have served time in correctional institutions have a 12% lower likelihood of being employed after release when compared to youths who have not had contact with the criminal justice system due to the stigma associated with conviction.... As approximately 41% of undergraduate college students worked to meet their educational expenses in 2011, the inability to work likely impedes the ability to pay for college for formerly incarcerated adults....”

The study also discussed “somewhat surprising” differences between maximum penalties and mandatory penalties: “After 1986, a number of states increased the minimum and maximum penalty for marijuana possession and distribution.... Other states imposed mandatory minimum penalties for drug possession. As a result, Black and Latino young men were more likely to be arrested and incarcerated for drug infractions when compared to their White peers.... Further, Black and Latino individuals received longer prison sentences than White persons for similar crimes in both federal and state courts.... Given the increased likelihood of arrest for Black young men, an increase in both the minimum or maximum marijuana penalty could have led to decreases in Black male college enrollment.

“However, the results demonstrate that states that had increases in the minimum marijuana possession penalty had only small and marginally significant decreases in college enrollment for Black men when compared to both Black women and non-Black men. When looking at cocaine, increases in the maximum cocaine penalties led to decreases in relative college enrollment for Black men.”

The 53-page study concluded with the following observation: “There is some evidence that the more salient drug with respect to changes in Black male college enrollment is crack cocaine.” That was likely due, in part, to sentencing disparities for crack versus powder cocaine offenses – a disparity that still exists in current federal sentencing laws. 


Sources: “Does Locked Up Mean Locked Out? The Effects of the Anti-Drug Act of 1986 on Black Male Students’ College Enrollment,” IRLE Working Paper #101-19, University of California, Berkeley (April 2019);

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