Out of Reach
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"Open the doors to all," declared City College founder Townsend Harris in 1847. "Let the children of the rich and poor take their seats together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct and intellect." And indeed, all students attended City College free until 1976. Like the neo-Gothic campus--stunning, as if from the pages of a fairy tale, yet physically decaying from underfunding and neglect--Harris's vision has taken a beating over the years. Yet it is still alive among City College student activists--and perhaps its time has come again.
At 2 o'clock on a rainy late-April afternoon, City College students were scheduled to walk out of class to protest proposed tuition hikes. Two slender young men stood tentatively in front of the student union, wondering if anyone else was going to show up. They'd seen a poster about the walkout. One of them, Mohammed Ramin, a sophomore, had been laid off from his job at Circuit City a month earlier. He was worried he might lose some of his financial aid. Then, with a tuition hike, he'd be unable to afford to stay in school. His friend Stanley George, also on financial aid, said--in a sentiment being echoed by students all over the country--that even without a tuition increase, "people right now can't afford to go to school."
More students slowly gathered in front of the student union, and soon hundreds were chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho! Tuition hikes have got to go!" Ramin and George giggled shyly. But after a few minutes, they were chanting too.
The City College students weren't alone this spring in taking action against recession-inspired tuition hikes. Students also walked out of class at Hunter and Brooklyn colleges and students rallied at Hostos Community College. And the action wasn't limited to New York City. About a thousand students at the University of Vermont participated in a similar walkout, as did students throughout the University of California system. In May some schools quieted down for exams, but students at Central Washington University walked out of class. At the University of Illinois, Chicago, students, community members and university workers rallied against tuition hikes and layoffs. The message of these protests is that state budgets should not be balanced at the expense of students. Says Gionni Carr, the governor-appointed student representative to the Tennessee Board of Regents, "They're treating us like we're ATMs, not like we're the future of this nation."
Even before this recession, the high cost of college in America was a crisis. The federal Pell Grant, the largest source of financial aid for low-income students, covered 76 percent of tuition at public four-year colleges in 1990-91. Today it covers less than half, according to the National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Student indebtedness has thus reached an all-time high: two-thirds of students graduate in debt--about $22,000 per student on average, according to the Project on Student Debt. A 2007 survey of college freshmen found that almost 10 percent were not sure they'd have the funds to graduate. The Washington, DC-based United States Students Association projects that in the next decade up to 3.2 million qualified students will pass up the opportunity to go to college because of the expense, which is, of course, not limited to tuition. Carr, now a part-time student at the University of Memphis, recalls, "Some semesters I couldn't afford to buy all my books."
College affordability is not just a student issue. It is about what kind of society we are going to have: one of well-educated citizens who are able to grapple with questions about the meaning of life and the existence of God, find cures for cancer, ease climate change and critique the powerful, or one in which ignorance and mediocrity are blandly, even cheerfully accepted. In Default, a movie-in-progress about student debt, a young woman says, "We're just going to get stupider until there's a change. We're just going to get dumber."
Particularly in urban schools, the protests are inspired not only by the affordability issues but by outrage that the tuition isn't well spent. At City College, students must contend with broken desks. Plumbing problems are neglected, with predictably foul consequences. At the University of the District of Columbia (UDC), where students managed this year to delay a planned tuition hike through protests, Elissa Selmore, a pre-med senior, points out that in the administration building "everything works nice," but elsewhere on campus "steps are crumbling, pipes are broken. In my biology lab, there's a big hole in the wall. We have handicapped students, and the elevators and escalators never work." Selmore, a 24-year-old single mother who must pay for daycare on top of her other expenses, says, "You can't ask us to hand over our money and not ask where it's going and what are the results."
While there could, in most places, be much closer cooperation between faculty unions and student groups, they do seem to embrace each other's concerns. "There's a myth that students only care about cost and faculty only care about pay, job security," says Ferd Wulkan of the Public Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), a coalition of academic unions (who fund the network) and student groups. "But it's not true. Faculty care about tuition because they care about their students." Students, he says, know that faculty issues affect their education. City University of New York's faculty and staff union, the Professional Staff Congress, has been one of the most vocal champions of affordable tuition. In Tennessee, students have been protesting budget-cutting practices and faculty furloughs (forced time off for professors). At UDC, says Selmore, students are worried about a similar proposal. "Most of my biology professors are [grad students] at the doctorate level," she says. "Are they the ones who will be downsized?"