Since campuses began shutting down across the country in early March, college students have been speaking out about the economic uncertainty, lack of food, and housing insecurity the nationwide upheaval has brought on. Despite this, many colleges have been reluctant to take measures to ensure student safety and comfort—most schools have not changed their grading policies, for example, and many campuses have not provided alternative resources after forcing students to evacuate dorms or cancel meal plans, prompting further uncertainty and stress.
In response, college students across the country are going on strike.
Striking students at the University of Chicago, Pomona College, The New School, Vassar College, and more are putting pressure on their school administration by refusing to go to classes or pay tuition payments or rent, saying its response to the coronavirus pandemic has been inadequately meeting the needs of the students paying to attend.
At the University of Chicago, undergraduate and graduate students have come together under the umbrella of UChicago for Fair Tuition to organize a tuition strike. According to senior Julia Attie, an organizer with UChicago for Fair Tuition, over 950 students are committed to or considering withholding spring quarter tuition if the university does not negotiate with students over their demands before the tuition deadline of April 29.
“Our demands now have over 1,700 signatures from students,” Attie said. “We are arguing the school needs to reduce tuition by 50 percent and waive all fees for the duration of the crisis, beginning in the spring quarter. We also want to see a budgetary breakdown of university expenditure and spending and are demanding that the school not raise tuition in future quarters.”
In response to students’ demands, the University of Chicago agreed to freeze tuition in an April 13 letter to students, promising, “There will be no increase in the combined total of tuition, housing, and fees for College students in the 2020-2021 academic year.” Many student organizers were not satisfied with this response, noting that there are students who are still struggling to pay tuition during the current spring quarter.
“We have done the math,” Attie said. “The University of Chicago recently announced a huge $5.4 billion fundraising campaign, separate from their over $8 billion endowment. The president claims that this campaign focuses on providing aid to students. It would take less than 2 percent of the $5.4 billion to halve spring quarter tuition for all undergraduate and graduate students.”
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UChicago’s response has been better than that of some other universities, however. At The New School in New York City, students have been on strike since April 6, following the university’s announcement that it will raise tuition by 3.8 percent for the following academic year. Students say a tuition raise is uncalled for; instead, because classes had to be moved online in the shadow of the coronavirus, they should receive a partial tuition refund for this semester.
“The strike has taken a few different forms, including an attendance strike, a refusal to participate in class or turn in assignments, and a boycott of fall 2020 class registration until our demands are met,” Keaton Slansky, a junior at The New School who helped organize the strike, told The Nation. “We also met with the school administration to discuss our concerns, but it was disappointing, to say the least. No decision makers were present in the meeting, and it was clear the school was…feigning to ‘hear us’ without actually intending to meet our demands any time soon.”
A lack of student input is a common grievance among those who have chosen to strike. Students at Vassar College in Poughkeepsie, who are currently organizing for a strike from classes after the school refused to implement a Universal Pass system, were similarly upset that the college did not ask for students’ opinions before amending their grading system for the semester.
“Students have been organizing since spring break for a Universal Pass grading Policy,” said Charlie Jones, a junior at Vassar and a member of the student organization Nobody Fails VC. “Striking was not our first choice, but after attending meetings with administrators, sending countless e-mails, and engaging in lively discourse with peer students, our needs have still not been met on an institutional level. Vassar also had the faculty vote on a grading policy for the semester without any student input and before most professors had even seen our proposal for a Universal Pass.”
Students across the country have been similarly pushing for a grading system that better reflects the conditions of the pandemic. Students at Simmons University in Boston, the University of Pennsylvania, Cornell University, and countless other schools are petitioning for various amended policies in light of the pandemic. While some students still want to get letter grades this semester to show graduate programs or improve their GPA, many are arguing for a Universal Pass system, noting that marginalized students with unstable housing, bad internet connection, or poor mental health might struggle to maintain their grades during the course of the pandemic.
The response to students’ organizing has been uneven. At Vassar, the administration opted for a variation of an opt-in pass/fail system, with the dean of studies writing in an e-mail to students that “faculty members do not accept the premise that the best solution for addressing serious social and economic inequities among students is to prevent students who are in reasonable positions from earning letter grades.”
“The policy allows individual professors and departments to implement their own versions of Universal Pass or double-A grading models, but fails to implement school-wide protection,” Jones said. “It also does not ensure that students will not fail their courses due to circumstances beyond their control such as financial insecurity, mental health crises instigated by Covid-19, and unhealthy or unsafe ‘home’ environments. This is why we felt further action from students was necessary.”
It’s not just undergraduate students who have chosen to strike—PhD students at Columbia University are also going on strike on April 24. Students are arguing that their rent should be canceled, research stipends should be increased, and an extra year should be added to their degree to make up for time lost because of the pandemic. According to Columbia student Danielle Carr, who is in her fifth year completing a doctorate in anthropology, hundreds of students from over 20 departments will be participating in the strike.
“We are going on strike because the university is taking a profit-oriented response to the crisis, rather than an approach that puts its vulnerable workers’ needs first,” she told The Nation. “Columbia has refused to cancel rent for its graduate students, and instead is trying to herd people out of their apartments during a global pandemic. We reject the university’s austerity. We reject its facade of liberal values while it ruthlessly squeezes graduate students for labor and rent. We won’t work, we won’t teach, and we won’t pay rent.”
The strikes taking place on college campuses are a microcosm of organizing happening across the country in response to poor working and living conditions during the pandemic. Workers at Amazon, Instacart, Target, and other companies are on strike to protest unsafe or unfair working conditions, and threats of a rent strike have arisen in cities across the country, including New York, Los Angeles, and Chicago.
Students at Ohio State University are participating in a rent strike as well; many have refused to pay their rent this month, which was due April 1. “I wanted to participate in the rent strike because the owner of my apartment is a million-dollar corporation who should be flexible with their tenants, especially during a pandemic,” Daija Kidd, a junior at Ohio State University, told The Nation. “Housing is a human right, and you can’t take that away from someone and expect them to ‘pull themselves up by the bootstraps’ when they don’t even have a place to call home.”
Strikes are not the only way that college students are protesting their university’s actions—and, frequently, inactions. Students at Drexel University, New York University, and the University of Miami are filing class-action lawsuits against their universities, arguing that they paid for services that they are no longer receiving through online instruction. Face-to-face interaction with professors, access to campus facilities and hands-on learning, and athletics and wellness programs have dissipated because of campus closures, and yet they are still expected to pay the same amount of money.
In some cases, the threat of a strike has succeeded. Students at Pomona College in Claremont, California, were prepared to strike after the school forced most of its students to evacuate on-campus housing and refused to implement a Universal Pass grading system. In response, a group of students and sympathetic professors were able to help several students back into campus housing and convince the school to implement a Universal Pass, according to students organizing with Occupy Pomona.
The decision not to strike was also tactical. “We decided that since the school gave us most of what we wanted, it simply wouldn’t make sense to strike at this point,” said Isabella Cayetano, a member of Occupy Pomona and a first year at the college. “We want to make sure that professors and the administration are still on our side in the fall, because we have more we want to argue for once we get back on campus. We want the fall 2020 semester to also be Universal Pass because people are going to need time to get back on their feet after the pandemic is over.”
While some students have successfully pressured their respective universities to meet their demands, organizing has still been fraught with challenges. Most students have had to worry about their grades, their studies, and their health in addition to trying to negotiate with wealthy and powerful institutions over e-mail or Zoom. “The University of Chicago is prestigious and powerful,” Attie confirmed. “Because they have such elite status, they are able to charge high tuition and rest assured few students will leave or transfer. And because the university has such large financial resources, we cannot even be sure there will be any significant economic effect from the strike.”
Despite these challenges, students continue to advocate for better treatment from their respective universities. “This is all work that students are doing in addition to survival during a pandemic,” Jones said. “It’s work and labor that students should not have to do because schools should not be leaning into their bureaucratic standards during this time. Instead, this is time to implement change that sustains a more equitable present and future for the college.”