Columbia Tuition Strikers Demand More Than Discounts

Columbia Tuition Strikers Demand More Than Discounts
portrait of Anne Dennon
By Anne Dennon

Published on February 5, 2021

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Over 1,100 undergraduate and graduate students at Columbia University in New York City are withholding their tuition for the spring semester, which was due at the end of January.

Just a sliver of the Ivy League school's 31,000 students were able to live on campus or take in-person classes this year as a result of the COVID-19 pandemic. Now, a coalition of student organizations demands Columbia reduce its costs by 10%.

According to strikers, online classes should cost less. College students have been arguing for COVID-19 discounts ever since campuses closed last March. At Columbia, more than 4,000 students signed the pledge supporting a strike, the Columbia Daily Spectator reported.

The movement began last summer, led by the Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA). But the strike isn't just about tuition. These students' series of demands include increasing financial aid, reducing funding for campus policing, and investing in the surrounding West Harlem community.

Student Demands Go Beyond Lowering Tuition

Coming out of last year's spring term, many colleges dropped fees for unused amenities, like the campus gym, and reimbursed students for room and board. The colleges that could afford to sprung for rebates or discounts in an effort to help struggling students.

Columbia dropped facilities fees, but aside from one-off grants, the university has made no gestures toward helping students pay the annual $64,000 sticker price. In response to student petitions and lawsuits, colleges nationwide countered that their online classes are of the same quality as their in-person classes, and are in fact even more expensive to produce.

“If we really are able to have a successful campaign here at Columbia, it will really inspire other people around the country to struggle around these demands as well on their campuses.” Source: — Emmaline Bennett, Co-Chair of Columbia-Barnard YDSA

In addition to demanding a lower cost of attendance, Columbia students want the institution to provide a 10% increase in financial aid; defund the campus police; improve working conditions for students; divest from fossil fuels; and propose a plan to educate, employ, and affordably house "the people of West Harlem" where the university is located.

"I think that [the strike] could have a really huge impact when it comes to things like labor organizing on campuses, reversing gentrification, anti-racist demands on campuses, divestment on campuses around the country, as well as the question of lowering tuition costs," said Emmaline Bennett, a student at Columbia and co-chair of YDSA.

By banding together to withhold tuition, students aim to leverage Columbia's reliance on tuition income (the university's $11 billion endowment notwithstanding) as well as its PR concerns. One strike leader called harming the institution's image among potential applicants "Columbia's biggest nightmare."

Columbia Strikers Call an Early Victory

Students who didn't pay Columbia's spring-term tuition bill due at the end of January could face $150 late fees and trouble registering for summer or fall classes. The university could even withhold diplomas from graduating seniors who haven't paid off their balances.

Columbia students hope the strike will find similar success as last year's University of Chicago student strike, which secured a tuition freeze. Indeed, rather than punishing student strikers, Columbia shows signs of working with their demands.

“This is a moment when an active reappraisal of the status quo is understandable, and we expect nothing less from our students.” Source: — Columbia University Spokesperson, Business Insider

"This is a moment when an active reappraisal of the status quo is understandable, and we expect nothing less from our students," a Columbia spokesperson told Business Insider. "Their voices are heard by Columbia's leadership, and their views on strengthening the university are welcomed."

Student strikers also regarded Columbia's publication of investment priorities as a sign of victory. The university's formalized priorities appear to meet student demands to divest from fossil fuels.

While the statement confirms that Columbia is not currently invested in oil and gas companies and will not invest in any going forward, it leaves a loophole for the school to invest in energy companies with plans to reach net-zero emissions by 2050.

Feature Image: SISICHENG / Shutterstock

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