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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.”