Activist's Toolbox

Quick Responses to Tough HEA Questions
How to Assemble an Effective Meeting

Quick Responses to Tough HEA Questions

Q. #1: Doesn't the drug provision permit students to regain eligibility if they successfully complete a drug treatment program?

A. While financial aid can be restored after successful completion of a treatment program, the drug provision does not allocate any money for treatment. An individual who is unable to afford college without public aid will probably have difficulty paying for private treatment as well.

Additionally, the treatment provision is overly broad and fails to distinguish between casual drug use and serious abuse. A student caught smoking a joint, for example, is no more in need of a drug treatment program than a student fined for underage drinking is in need of treatment for alcoholism.

Q. #2: Doesn't withholding aid to students with drug convictions mean that more money is available to students who haven't broken the law?

A. No, an individual student's federal financial aid is determined by a preexisting need-based equation set up by the Department of Education. There is no mechanism for diverting aid denied to drug offenders to others; the money simply reverts to the overall Department of Education budget. Additionally, the provision has significant administrative costs.

Q. #3: Doesn't the drug provision deter students from using taxpayer money to buy drugs?

A. First, most federal financial aid goes to tuition and room and board. Also, there is no reason to believe that this federal law does anything to remedy the problem of drug abuse on campuses. Judges handling drug cases already have the option of denying drug offenders federal benefits, and school administrators have the power to expel problem students. These are the people who know the students best, and they should be the ones who decide their educational futures - not the federal government.

Q. #4: Won't this drug provision keep dangerous drug dealers off campuses?

A. No, the vast majority of applicants whose aid is being cut by this law were not convicted of drug dealing, but drug possession. Marijuana, for example, is by far the most common illegal drug for which Americans are arrested. And according to the FBI's Uniform Crime Report for the United States in 1999, 704,812 marijuana arrests were made. Of those arrests, 620,541 - or 88% - were for possession alone.

The profile of the typical victim of this drug provision is a young person from a middle or lower-income family who has already been punished for a misdemeanor marijuana possession conviction. And because most of the law's victims are young people, they are likely to be first-time offenders.

School administrators already have the power to expel students whom the deem to pose a threat to safety. Campus safety is a serious concern that must be addressed, but the HEA drug provision does nothing to keep campuses safe or drug-free.

Q. #5: Shouldn't actions have consequences?

A. All actions have their consequences - and consequences for drug offenses are often quite severe already. How many times does a nonviolent drug offender need to be punished for the same actions? These would-be students having their aid cut already paid whatever price the criminal justice system demands. How does it make sense to continually punish young people in such a way that limits their ability to get an education and improve their lives?

Asa Hutchinson, newly-appointed chief of the US Drug Enforcement Administration, publicly supports allowing convicted drug offenders to remain eligible for federal student aid. Such aid, he said, is an important component of letting drug offenders “get back to leading useful, productive lives.”

Q. #6: Isn't federal financial aid a privilege, not a right?

A. Financial aid is a policy, and a program funded by taxpayers. The people affected by this law, and their families, all pay taxes - and they have already been punished. It is unfair to punish them a second time for the same offense. Equally important, financial aid is a poor or middle class student's lifeline to a future of self-sufficiency. Financial aid is hope for those who might otherwise be destined to poverty, even if they have the ability to excel.

America's best interests are served when its citizens have higher education. The economic benefits include increased tax revenues, greater productivity, increased consumption, and decreased reliance on government programs.

The social benefits are also striking. Studies indicate that higher education correlates with decreased crime, increased charitable giving, community service and participation in civic life (Reaping the Benefits, Institute for Higher Education Policy, 1998).

Q. #7: If the Department of Education does not provide a racial breakdown of the applicants whose aid had been cut, how can we know for sure that the law discriminates based on race?

A. Even though the Free Application for Federal Student Aid (FAFSA) does not ask about race, we know that people of color are disproportionately targeted in the drug war.” For example, unresolved problems in the criminal justice system, such as racial profiling, lead to African Americans making up 55% of all drug convictions, even though African-Americans comprise only 13% of illegal drug users (source: The Sentencing Project). While we don't know for certain how much of this disparity exists within the subset of the American populace that is seeking to attend college, it would be unreasonable after looking at this extreme statistics to believe that there isn't some racial disparity - and the law's supporters made no attempt to determine this before passing the law.

Even President Bush and Attorney General John Aschcroft acknowledge the problem of racial profiling in policing, and have promised to address it. But until law enforcement tactics and the criminal justice system are radically reformed, this provision spreads the inequalities of those institutions into the realm of higher education.

Q. #8: Why should we (student governments or legislators) be concerned about this drug provision and why should we take our time to address it?

A. We should be concerned, because any student who receives federal financial aid is a potential victim of this law. (Be sure to check with your school's financial aid office to find out if any students at your school have been affected). According to the latest data from the Department of Education, made available in August, 2002, more than 47,000 would-be students lost financial aid eligibility for the 2001-2002 school year -- plus an unknown number who rightly or wrongly believed they were ineligible and didn't bother to apply.

Even if our campus (to student government) hasn't been hit yet, we can be sure that it will not be spared the consequences of this law. As student leaders, we must stand up for our fellow students and do whatever we can to make sure that educational opportunity is not the next victim of Congress' failed drug war.

How to Assemble an Effective Meeting

Your first meeting is a coming out party. As such, it is a good idea to get as many people to attend as possible. A crowd attracts a crowd, so beat the drum loudly and get them packed in.

Set up a weekday evening event about two weeks in advance, and make sure the timing doesn't conflict with exams or holidays. Avoid Thursdays or Fridays for obvious reasons. Get a reservation for a medium-sized room in a central campus location, but don't get an oversized room in order to avoid having too many empty chairs. It's always preferable to have a room that looks full.

No place is too sacred for a flyer. Invitational flyers should be posted all around your campus in high-traffic, high-visibility places where they are sure to be seen. Such ideal places are elevators, water fountains, restrooms, building entrances and exits. Check out for a sampling of flyers, which you can manipulate and use.

Get your campus paper to post the meeting info the day of or before the event by sending a press release a few days in advance. (See HEA Media Guide: Write a Media Advisory and Holding a Media Event.) You may even get a campus reporter to attend, so prepare for a brief interview. (See HEA Media Guide: Tips for Print Media Interviews.) You should also try to post meeting alerts on every campus list serve you can get on.

Person-to-person communication is always the best. That is why you and your supporters should set up an information table in a central campus location the day of and before the meeting. This will give you an excellent opportunity to perfect your persuasive skills and invite more people to the big meeting.

Create a captive audience on the day of the meeting by asking your professors to let you give a three-minute plug at the beginning of your classes. Then, during the same day, hand out palm flyers (a flyer cut from 1/2 or 1/4 sheet of paper saves on printing) advertising the meeting to your classmates. Make sure all printed materials contain the and websites so they can check us out on the web.

Sign ideas for tables and meeting: Make a big drawing of our insignia of the college grad with the prison bars on a white sheet. Above the insignia create a big, simple captions such as, “Should the Drug War Cut College Opportunities?” or “Drug War Cuts College Aid: A Bad Idea.” Effective banners and signs are big, bold, colorful, provocative, and plentiful. In addition to showing earnestness and commitment, they bombard the senses.

Banners and signs answer this question: Why is this room or table different from all other rooms or tables? Don't forget to save and use them for later.

The contact list is life. When the meeting comes around, you must be sure to get everybody to put down their name, phone number, and e-mail address before they leave the meeting. Have each person provide as much info as possible and be sure they write it down legibly (people often scribble their info down and it is useless later on). This growing list of supporters will be the key to your continuing success. You should take pains to cultivate this list and keep it growing.

Be sure to have an established agenda and don't go over the allotted time. Set out what you want to accomplish beforehand and stick to it. You may want to get one of those big marker boards in order to write down agenda items that everybody can see. Start by introducing yourself and briefly explaining why you called this meeting. It's a good idea to seat chairs in a circle so everybody can see one another.

Continue the introductions by having everybody say their name and give a brief reason why they decided to attend. Then open the meeting to suggestions on what your group wants to accomplish this semester (e.g. student government endorsement, lobby Congress, increase membership, etc.).

Provide printed materials for attendees to read after the meeting. These should include articles from national publications covering our student campaign to repeal the HEA drug law. Make plenty of copies.

Stick around after the meeting to find out who seems willing and able to give serious time to the new organization. This will help you determine who will make up your core group. Don't forget to thank everyone for coming.


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