The nationwide movement against student debt and rising college tuition costs is rising. Nearly one million people have signed onto a petition calling for full cancellation of student debt by executive order. The Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA), the student and campus section of the Democratic Socialists of America (DSA), has launched a national campaign to pressure Joe Biden to cancel all student debt as part of a broad set of demands for working-class relief during the pandemic.
Cancelling all student debt would be a transformative change for the 46 million people in the US who currently hold $1.6 trillion in debt — and could lay the groundwork for further movements demanding robust COVID-19 economic relief and the demand for free public college for all advanced by Bernie Sanders during his presidential campaign. Students at Columbia University are taking this movement a step further: 3,300 students have pledged a tuition strike for next semester unless a broad set of demands around tuition costs, financial aid, labor rights, divestment, housing justice, anti-racism, and police abolition are met.
The tactic of a tuition strike has only been used once in recent years, at the University of Chicago last spring semester. That strike, demanding a 50% tuition reduction and involving two hundred students, won a tuition freeze from University of Chicago’s administration. The Columbia tuition strike, already involving more than 16 times as many students, is the largest action of this kind in US history. The only comparable instance was in 1973, when 2,500 students pledged to go on tuition strike at the University of Michigan.
But Columbia students are demanding not only reduced tuition, but also a democratisation of the university and a restructuring of its institutional priorities. In this sense, Columbia’s tuition strike is part of a long struggle, echoing the 1968 protests which erupted against Columbia’s predatory expansion into Harlem and its connections to the national security establishment during the Vietnam War.
Those protests called for ending the construction of a segregated gym on public land; our tuition strike calls for an end to further university expansion into Harlem and repairing damage done to that community by fulfilling a Community Benefits Agreement that includes guarantees for employment, education, and affordable housing for Harlem residents.
The 1968 protests called for Columbia’s disaffiliation from weapons research conducted by the US Department of Defense; our tuition strike calls for disaffiliation with the police and divestment from fossil fuel companies as well as companies complicit in Israel’s military occupation of Palestine.
Like the 1968 protests, our tuition strike goes beyond these immediate demands to demand a shifting of power away from the unaccountable millionaire CEOs who make up Columbia’s Board of Trustees and into the hands of students, instructors, and workers who actually make the university run.
And as with the 1968 protests, this present-day student movement can’t be separated from the wider struggles that 2020’s crises have unleashed. Student testimonials speak to the depth of financial hardship that the pandemic and the ensuing economic depression has caused: lost jobs, student debt up to $200,000, students working multiple jobs alongside attending classes full-time, and constant anxiety over losing financial aid are common themes in the testimonials of students supporting the tuition strike. Many pointed to the fact that, in stark contrast to their financial struggles, the university’s endowment had increased $310 million during the pandemic alone, and President Lee Bollinger continues to make $4.6 million a year.
The tuition strike is also a direct consequence of the racial-justice protest wave that swept the US this past summer. Two of the five central demands of the tuition strike emerged from the organising efforts of Mobilised African Diaspora, a Columbia student activist group, as part of a campaign to compel the administration to support black students and the Harlem community. These include abolitionist demands to dissolve ties with the New York Police Department, defund Columbia’s office of Public Safety which has engaged in racist practices against students and community members, and invest in student — and community — controlled safety solutions.
The tuition strike also builds on student movements that precede the pandemic. The demand for full fossil fuel divestment, building on past organising by Sunrise and Extinction Rebellion, is especially urgent in the face of an escalating climate crisis. And for the past four years, a coalition between Students for Justice in Palestine and Jewish Voice for Peace has called on Columbia to divest from eight companies complicit in the Israeli military occupation, the destruction of Palestinian homes, the surveillance and policing of Palestinians, and the unequal treatment of Palestinians under Israeli law.
Omar Barghouti, co-founder of the Boycott, Divestment, Sanctions movement, as well as a Columbia alum, issued a statement in support of the tuition strike drawing a connection between our present-day demands and the successful campaign for divestment from South African apartheid at Columbia in the 1980s: “When I was a student at Columbia in the 1980s and participated in the great, Black-led shut-downs of Columbia College to pressure the trustees to divest from apartheid South Africa, I was fulfilling an ethical duty to prevent my tuition from doing harm and supporting injustice anywhere.”
As Barghouti’s testimonial suggests, the tuition strike is a movement to democratise the university — to give students, instructors, and workers a say in where Columbia spends and invests its massive wealth. We want that wealth to be spent on easing the economic burden on students and improving the wages and benefits of instructors and workers — not on multibillion expansion projects that gentrify Harlem, a Public Safety force that allies itself with the New York Police Department, or companies that fuel our climate crisis and feed the Israeli military machine.
The tuition strike is also a strike against university austerity. Students’ and workers’ interests aren’t opposed — the two groups are often one and the same, as so much of the university’s functioning depends on the labor of work-study students, graduate student workers, and undergraduate teaching assistants.
Master’s and undergraduate student workers go into debt to pay for classes even as they provide crucial academic labour to the university, and are hit doubly by the cost of tuition and by the administration’s union-busting tactics. The Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers (GWC-UAW) has been fighting for years to force Columbia to recognise undergraduate and Master’s academic workers as part of the bargaining unit, something the administration still refuses to do.
Our tuition strike has been organised in coalition with the GWC-UAW union, which released a statement in support and called on instructors “to show solidarity with students striking tuition by committing to continue teaching students who are withholding tuition.” The tuition strike has also adopted the demands of GWC-UAW as our own, calling in particular for union recognition for Master’s and undergraduate student workers and protections for international student workers.
Our tuition strike pledge also includes the following demand: “This tuition reduction and increased aid 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 can easily afford to reduce tuition and increase financial aid by 10% while also improving workers’ pay and benefits.
The loss in revenue would be less than the endowment’s $310 million increase during the pandemic, less than the up to $1.12 billion in net income the administration makes on a yearly basis, and a mere drop in the bucket compared to the $7.2 billion out of the $11.26 billion in the endowment which the administration is free to spend however they want. The only question is whether we, as students and workers, can force an unaccountable group of wealthy administrators and trustees to listen to our demands.
Over 3,000 students taking collective action has opened up possibilities that would have seemed unbelievable to us just three weeks ago. Already the administration of Barnard College, an affiliate school of Columbia, has started to cave on demands relating to policing and Public Safety; now there are signs that the University Senate, which has decision-making power over the university’s policies and budgets, might endorse our demands. We have a real chance of victory.
But this fight doesn’t end with Columbia. Our YDSA chapter sees this tuition strike as part of a wider struggle against student debt, rising tuition costs, and for a vision of education for all. By charging exorbitant tuition — 51-84% higher than the average private four-year university — Columbia not only harms working-class students but also contributes to rising tuition costs across the country. Columbia trustees and administrators rake in millions in profits from tuition revenue that is subsidised, in large part, by federal grants and loans — money that could otherwise go toward making public universities like CUNY tuition-free.
Columbia would not be able to charge such a high price if public universities were free. The only reason it can capitalise on students’ financial suffering is because we are forced to choose between different degrees of indebtedness, rather than being guaranteed education as a human right.
That’s why we must continue fighting for debt cancellation, for free public college, and ultimately for bringing exploitative private universities like Columbia under social control.
Our tuition strike is only the beginning.
Emmaline Bennett is a Master’s student in the Social Studies Education program at Columbia Teachers College. She is co-chair of Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America, the group that organised the tuition strike, as well as a member of the elected national leadership of the YDSA.