In an unprecedented mass action organized by the Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America, more than 2,500 students across Columbia institutions have committed to withholding their tuition if Columbia continues to ignore our demands, which advocate that students should be included in decisions over the university’s allocation of resources—not just as an educational institution, but as an employer and an international investor.
The movement at Columbia joins others across the country, most recently at the University of San Francisco and American University, that are employing the same tactics for the same ends, including measures to defund campus police and divest university endowments from fossil fuel companies and ICE.
In the spring, as Covid-19 overwhelmed the country, students nationwide launched tuition strikes to protest their institutions’ lack of resources, unchanged grading policies, and rising costs during the campus closures and economic downturn prompted by the pandemic. Now students are using tuition strikes to demand changes in their university’s allocation of resources and unfair practices largely, shifting their sights away from the temporary crisis of the pandemic and toward the many long-term, entrenched issues that they have been organizing around for decades now.
Columbia students have had a particularly difficult time negotiating with the administration. Ours was one of the schools that demanded a tuition reduction during the pandemic, with 8,500 students signing a petition. Unlike some of our peer institutions, Columbia refused.
Then, after a summer of protests, thousands of students came together to support the demands of a local coalition, Mobilized African Diaspora (MAD), that addressed our school’s historical institutional racism. When Columbia administrators finally agreed to meet with student organizers, they paid lip service to the group’s concerns and dismissed their demands. And this September, after a majority of students at Columbia College voted for the university to divest from companies that profit from Israel’s human rights violations—cementing campus-wide support for Columbia University Apartheid Divest’s years-long campaign—Columbia administrators refused to consider divestment, just like they had refused when more than 1,000 students and faculty signed a petition demanding divestment from fossil fuels earlier in the year.
Columbia administrators have made it very clear: Though students pay the tuition that accounts for almost a quarter of the school’s revenue, and at rates significantly higher than at other private institutions, we will not be afforded a seat at the table when it comes to setting institutional priorities.
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Now, students at Columbia have decided that we need to make more noise if we want the administration to listen.
Costs of attendance at Columbia were already too high before the pandemic. In the past 20 years, they have increased by more than $35,000, to more than $75,000 per year. But the pandemic has made a farce of any previous claim that exorbitant tuition costs are connected to quality of education, as students foot the same bill for online classes as they did for in-person ones and even pay “Student Life” fees (which mainly fund facilities upkeep) despite the total absence of campus activities.
And the problem extends far beyond Columbia. For decades, tuition costs nationwide have grown at twice the inflation rate, and are now 278 percent of their 1970 equivalents, despite the fact that wages have stagnated for most workers. Alongside rising tuition, the importance of college degrees (and increasingly, graduate degrees) has risen because of the loss of millions of stable manufacturing jobs.
Young people face the choice to either rack up hundreds of thousands of dollars in student debt or navigate a future where all financial odds are stacked against them. Columbia’s tuition strike is an attempt by students to refuse this choice. Unlike workers in traditional strikes, students do not have the ability to exert power by withholding their labor. The idea is more comparable to a rent strike. As long as student tuition is a main source of revenue for universities like Columbia, students can exert significant power by withholding payments.
The fact that not even public colleges are free to attend is one of the factors enabling private universities’ high price tags. The public funds that once went toward tuition-free models now subsidize tax cuts, loans, and grants that private universities like Columbia use to prop up their own financial aid. This is no accident: In New York City, specific lobbying efforts by private university administrators can explain why private endowments have been growing while the burden of debt weighs heavier on students than ever. Riding on the backs of students who do not qualify for grant-based aid, the new debt-fueled system has bankrolled corporate universities, and it has failed to save the federal government money in the process.
It’s a common misconception that increasing tuition revenues is necessary to bring benefits to workers and faculty. In reality, these hikes in costs of attendance have been accompanied by a greater shift toward precarious employment. In 1969, roughly 80 percent of faculty members across American universities held stable, well-paying tenure or tenure-track positions; today, only 25 percent do. When we demand that Columbia prioritize its students and workers over its administrators and stockholders, this includes the expectation that reducing the cost of attendance will not come at the expense of workers and faculty.
Actualizing a more democratic university will require that student movements work in solidarity with on-campus unions—in part because many students are the workers performing labor within the university, from research to teaching to various work-study appointments. Even in distinct struggles, unity between students and workers mutually reinforces our power against the for-profit, austerity-ridden university. By coordinating tactics like labor and tuition strikes, we can put even greater force behind our common vision of a democratic university.
In this vein, the tactic of withholding tuition has the potential to win demands that go far beyond the tuition itself. By exercising this form of collective power, students can exert leverage within their universities across many domains. We should look at skyrocketing tuition costs as a mere symptom of the unilateral processes behind all major institutional decisions. The question of why tuition rates are so high is deeply connected to the question of how tuition is spent.
This is why the Columbia tuition strike has formed a broad coalition with MAD, Students for Justice in Palestine, Extinction Rebellion, the Sunrise Movement, and Graduate Workers of Columbia. The common line connecting these groups and the demands is the idea that students should have a democratic say about how where the university places its resources. The university’s endowment has grown by more than $300 million over the course of a global pandemic. We know that Columbia can afford to repay the surrounding community of Harlem for decades of damages, rather than investing in endless expansion. Likewise, Columbia can afford to divest from interests such as fossil fuel companies and companies that profit from human rights abuses in Palestine.
This movement holds significance beyond Columbia. If successful, a tuition strike has the potential to set an example for other students nationwide, demonstrating how to organize at their local level for affordable higher education that privileges people over profits. A tuition strike of this magnitude is without precedent; the only similar example is a 2,500-student tuition strike at the University of Michigan in 1973. We hope that our movement at Columbia will provide a successful model for mobilizing students across the country who all face similar struggles.
A nationwide tuition strike movement could finally turn back the neoliberal tide that has left students with no choice but to fork over rising tuition to universities that prioritize profits and expansion over the needs of students, professors, and their communities. We are beginning to forge another path. That’s why Columbia is desperate not to concede.