Ramon Quintero could be, in many respects, a poster child for today’s student movement. As a 32-year-old single parent, Quintero deliberated over his decision to transfer to the University of California, Berkeley, from Rio Hondo College in Whittier, California. At one time, Quintero, a senior studying geography and ethnic studies, was living in his RV. At another, he slept couch to couch. In the two years since his decision, he has amassed over $25,000 in student loan debt.
"I could have gone somewhere else because it was cheaper," says Quintero. "But I didn’t know it was going to be a 32 percent increase. Then they cut my Pell Grant, and not only tuition increased but housing–housing is 60 percent of student expenses."
On March 4 Quintero took to the streets of California to participate in the National Day of Action to Defend Education. He was one of tens of thousands of students coast-to-coast who, according to StudentActivism.net, held more than 100 actions in thirty states. At dozens of schools, the catalysts for the protests were massive layoffs, reductions in class offerings and the downsizing of graduate programs.
For instance, the City University of New York (CUNY) students rallied outside Governor David Paterson’s office in opposition to his proposal to allow universities, not constituent-bound legislators, to raise tuition at their own discretion, says Doug Singsen, doctoral student with the CUNY Graduate Center and activist with the CUNY Campaign to Defend Education. "As long as the economic crisis goes on we are going to keep seeing cuts," says Singsen. "At first, they threw some kind of stopgap measures at them, but the cuts keep happening because the stopgaps keep running out of juice."
Jacob Greenberg, graduate student and teacher’s assistant at the University of Washington, became involved with the University of Washington student protests after the school began cutting custodian swing shifts and privatizing elements of student service. Then when he began teaching a larger class size, his personal research hours began to drop. When March 4 came around, he found that his university was, for once, bringing out a high turnout of students to its protests, a success for his school.
"After March 4 did we put more money into the coffers?" Greenberg says. "No, but we did get hundreds of new people who recognized the problem on campus. This is a movement that is building and so, in terms of concrete examples [of success]–people getting jobs back, classes being reopened–it’s hard to say in the middle of the year. But the only way we will truly get those victories is through mass movement."
The biggest, best-organized and most dramatic actions reported all took place in the Golden State. In part, that’s a reflection of the depth of the crisis facing California higher education, but it’s also a reflection of the head start that California campuses have on the rest of the country in organizing savvy.