Source: Columbia students vote to continue strike

Students are refusing to give in on tuition and other demands, calling on alumni to help in their fight.
By: | February 17, 2021
Student tuition strikers at Columbia University say they want administrators to take more decisive action against anti-black racism on campus and in the surrounding West Harlem community. (GettyImages/Bruce Yuanyue Bi)GettyImages/Bruce Yuanyue Bi

Students have voted to continue their strike against Columbia University over tuition costs and other matters and also have reached out to alumni to assist in their efforts, a source told University Business on Wednesday.

More than 80% of the 1,000-plus students asking for changes said they are still willing to continue the strike – and continue to hold back tuition payments – “even amid the risks.” The students first made a series of demands a month ago to officials at Columbia, Barnard College and Teachers College just before semester payments were due.

“I am generally feeling hopeful that there are so many of us committed to demanding that the institutions we participate in are democratic and responsive: that they actually stand for their students, their workers, and the communities they are in,” the source who requested anonymity told University Business. “And to hold these institutions accountable to the platitudes in the mission statements and communications they send out. We are striking to win, which obviously includes winning our demands, but is also about building a movement. I’m inspired by the solidarity we’ve seen not only from the Columbia community but from students all over the world, some of which are planning to do a tuition strike in the fall as well.”

The Columbia-Barnard chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), which is leading the charge on behalf of the students, says it has garnered support from two dozen New York elected officials and candidates, three labor unions, 31 student organizations and from more than 4,500 students, staff, faculty and alumni.

In a letter obtained by University Business, the YSDA also asked alumni to both email administrators and trustees and withhold donations to the university until Columbia leaders “set up a meeting with the tuition strike organizers or send a written plan for how these demands will be met.”

Among the many changes the group of students is asking for from the university are:

  • “At least a 10% reduction in tuition
  • At least a 10% increase in financial aid. (The university says it has increased aid by 7% overall and almost 10% in undergraduate schools).
  • The end of “student responsibility”, to be replaced by grant money
  • The forgiveness of late fees incurred through the strike period
  • The defunding of campus public safety department
  • Investing more heavily in the West Harlem community and denouncing racism
  • Bargaining in good faith with campus labor unions divesting from companies involved in human rights abuse.”

The costs of Columbia

According to U.S News and World Report figures, tuition is at Columbia was nearly $64,000 for the 2020-21 academic year (though other reports show around $59,000), while room and board is close to $15,000. After factoring in financial aid and scholarships, students who need financial assistance average a little more than $20,000 in overall costs. Typical debt after graduation is around $21,000.

But those figures depend on a number of factors, including family income. For example, the average total cost per year after need for families that make more than $110,000 per year is $41,000, according to data posted by U.S. News. The pandemic has exacerbated further hardships for some students and families.

“Students involved in the tuition strike view their efforts as part of a wider struggle against unaffordable tuition and student debt and in support of College for All,” the YDSA said in a statement at the start of the strike. “The students organizing the tuition strike view it as a last-resort tactic to compel the university to listen to demands that students have been organizing around for the past few years. These demands should not come at the expense of instructor or worker pay, but rather at the expense of bloated administrative salaries, expansion projects, and other expenses that don’t benefit students and workers.”

Columbia

Several students have expressed concern over language contained on the Student Financial Services’ portion of the university’s website and the potential for a “1.5% monthly fee of balances due”, but Columbia affirmed to UB that those fees have been “suspended until further notice.” So far, students who have carryover tuition balances have only been subject to a “$150 one-time fee” for outstanding balances prior to Dec. 19, according to the university. Those who have monthly payment plans, the university assures, will not be subject to late fees.

Columbia’s website also notes that it did not mete out fees for unpaid balances in March and April and does not plan to do so for May. It has made concessions on a number of fees for services that could not be delivered because of the closure of some facilities due to the pandemic.

Still, there is a clause contained in that notice to students that the university “may reinstate monthly charges in the future.”

As for unpaid balances, the Student Financial Services site area notes under its Unpaid Bills section that students who owe more than $1,000 will have their accounts put on financial hold and they will not be able to register for classes for the following term if they are not paid in full. For those who are set to graduate, the university’s policy is clear: it may not hand out diplomas, transcripts or academic certificates for students who have not completely paid their balances. The policies stand for all students who might be behind, not just those who have chosen to strike. It is unclear whether the university will relax those policies in the future because of the pandemic.

When asked by University Business about students who are facing potential hardships, a university representative said that “if a student has financial concerns, they can reach out to Financial Aid to talk through options.”