As the tuition strike at Columbia University neared its third month, internal support remained strong, with 82% of strikers voting to continue withholding tuition on March 16th, even as a deadline for additional late fees approached.
“Every time I’m feeling skeptical or pessimistic about the outlook of the strike, we’ve found a huge surge of support from our strikers,” said Townes Nelson, a senior at Columbia College and one of the strike organizers.
Strikers are angry at the high cost of tuition and Columbia’s refusal to lower it during the pandemic, despite the university’s endowment increasing by $310 million during the 2019-20 fiscal year. Strikers have been refusing to pay their bills for the spring semester until Columbia meets their demands, which include a 10% reduction in tuition and a 10% increase in financial aid.
The strike, which the organizers claim is the largest of its kind in American history, has received a burst of attention, with coverage from The New York Times and major TV networks, as well as the endorsements of community groups and local politicians.
But there’s a paradox at the heart of the strike’s chance of success: many of the students who would most benefit from the strike’s demands are stuck on the sidelines, unable to withhold any funds, because their tuition and fees are covered by institutional aid and federal loans that are disbursed directly to Columbia.
Marissa Rodriguez, a first-year student at Columbia’s School of Social Work, is one such student. Rodriguez grew up poor in Mendota, California, which she describes as like “a rural mini-Mexico.” Her family didn’t have Wi-Fi, and she had to walk an hour and twenty minutes to the nearest Starbucks to complete her college applications. “I was doing people’s homework to get milk for my little sister,” Rodriguez said.
Nevertheless, Rodriguez persevered. “I’m the first one [in my family] to ever leave. . . , the first one to ever get a bachelor’s, let alone a master’s,” she said. She dreamed of becoming a social worker to help people struggling in similar circumstances to those that she overcame.
However, acceptance to Columbia has only increased the financial pressures on Rodriguez. She expects to graduate from the two-year program with $200,000 in student loan debt. Rodriguez also has medical debt from a range of ongoing costly health problems. Additionally, like many first-generation students, she regularly sends her family money.
Although she has a full-time class load and a mandatory 21 hour per week unpaid internship, Rodriguez has had to look for a part time job. She’s been offered four but can’t find one whose hours can accommodate her school schedule.
“I’m living off credit cards now,” she said. “I may be on the brink of homelessness. I went through my whole closet, and I’m selling on Facebook marketplace just to try to get food.”
Given her situation, Rodriguez was excited last fall when she heard about the tuition strike. “I totally identify with the tuition strike,” she said. “I’m so for it.”
But because Rodriguez’s tuition and fees are entirely covered by federal loans and institutional aid, she has nothing to withhold. “It’s so infuriating. I’m just so angry and so sad,” said Rodriguez. “This tuition strike, I love it. [But] am I really a part of it?”
Rodriguez is hardly alone in this dilemma. Emmaline Bennett, a student at Columbia’s Teachers College and a strike organizer, estimates that out of the roughly 4,300 students who signed an initial pledge to strike last fall, 1,000 are fully on aid and loans and so have nothing to withhold.
Bennett herself is one of these students. “It does diminish a lot of our potential support,” she said.
Many of the strikers who are able to withhold funds still have much of their tuition covered by loans, so the amount that they can hold back is relatively small. Of the 19 strike participants interviewed for this article who were willing to discuss dollar amounts, ten said they were withholding under $10,000. Four of the ten were withholding $1,000 or less.
“We got a lot of messages from people saying, ‘How do I strike if I’m on loans?’ ” said Bennett.
Throughout the fall, while the strike was being planned, organizers tried to determine whether it was possible for students to pause their loans without cancelling them, effectively preventing them from being disbursed to the university while preserving the possibility that they could be reactivated when the strike ended.
Ultimately, the strike’s organizers advised potential strikers against trying to interfere with their student loans. “It would backfire a ton if we ended up creating more problems for people who are already facing issues with affording their education,” said Bennett.
Some extremely devoted potential strikers wanted to cancel their loans regardless of the consequences.The strike’s organizers told these students that withholding tuition was not their only means of action.
“If your tuition is paid fully by grants then that doesn’t mean that you’re not part of this movement,” said Becca Roskill, a student at Columbia’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences and a strike organizer.
Students have held in-person events, such as a January 17th rally on Columbia’s Low Steps, and a press conference in front of university president Lee Bollinger’s house. Supporters can help organize fellow students through phone banking, email, text, social media and coordinating with student governments. And those with limited financial power at present can also pledge to withhold donations from Columbia after they graduate.
Organizers have said that over 1,000 students have withheld tuition, but an internal spreadsheet obtained by CNS listed only 373 confirmed strikers as of the end of January. Nelson suggested that the true number was likely in between those totals, but wouldn’t be more specific.
Organizers say that the total number of strikers and the ultimate dollar amount that they withhold is not the key issue. “No one is thinking that the tuition strike is going to bankrupt Columbia,” said Roskill.
Rather, they say their power derives from the damage they can inflict on Columbia’s image.
“They need their reputation as this prestigious Ivy League institution that helps make NYC great to continue attracting students, faculty, investors, researchers and medical professionals,” Sarah Knispel, a second-year student at the School of Social Work who is withholding $641, wrote in an email to CNS. “When you have The New York Times talking about students’ grievances with the university, I think that’s a blow.”
Some organizers and strikers credit the threat of reputational damage with protecting them from punitive actions by Columbia beyond the late fees they have been charged.
Given the pandemic, preventing strikers from registering for next term’s classes or receiving their diplomas, would make it hard for the university to say it cares about its students, said Matthew Gamero, a freshman at Columbia College and a strike organizer.
“That starts harming their profits in the long term,” added Bennett.
Columbia has been reluctant to formally acknowledge the strike, although the university has addressed it obliquely. On December 21st, Bollinger sent a campus-wide email referencing “frustration that some members of our community have expressed,” but arguing that the endowment could not be used to lower tuition or increase aid because each part of it has been previously set aside for a specific purpose.
When asked by CNS for comment on the strike itself, the university re-issued a general statement that has appeared in multiple outlets: “This is a moment when an active reappraisal of the status quo is understandable, and we expect nothing less from our students,” it reads in part.
Rodriguez remains frustrated by the limits on her participation in the strike and by her difficulties in affording her education. Still, she remains convinced of the value of her presence in the program.
“Columbia needs people like me,” she said. “It’s one thing to learn about helping trauma or BIPOC or low income people. It’s another thing to experience it. I’m able to bring my real life experience into the classroom.”
But as long as Rodriguez and other would-be strikers have no money to withhold from Columbia, the university may not be inclined to listen. In February, the School of Social Work updated its cost of attendance figure for the 2021-22 academic year. Tuition and fees will increase by almost $2,000.