From public institutions like the University of Iowa and the University of Massachusetts Boston, to private ones like the University of Chicago and Rice University, students across the country are coalescing around a novel idea: a tuition strike.
The massive mismanagement of the coronavirus pandemic has forced college students to question the cost of their education, as schools that charge tens of thousands of dollars in tuition per year transition to online instruction.
“If I’m fighting for other people, I really am fighting for myself.”
“Students are really angry at the way that we’re being treated right now,” says Dulce Escorcia, a senior at the University of Iowa and a member of Iowa Student Action. “We were already being taken advantage of by rising tuition costs.” And now, there’s the pandemic, which forced students back into classrooms or into spaces where COVID-19 protocols aren’t followed. “It all comes together into all the energy that’s buzzing around campuses right now.”
“American students pay so much money,” says Miranda Dotson, a senior at American University in Washington, D.C., and an organizer with the nascent national organization United Student Front. “If they withhold their dollars, there are a lot of universities that are tuition-dependent [which] would be forced to listen to, or in a position to negotiate with, students who strike en masse.”
Broiling in the background is the rise of labor activism in education, including campaigns for unionization within university graduate departments as well as the #Red4Ed strikes of K-12 educators that made headlines throughout 2018 and 2019. The push for tuition strikes has also drawn strength from the mobilization for the Black Lives Matter movement that has brought tens of thousands of people to the streets around the country.
Early this year, Americans hit a record-breaking total of $1.6 trillion in student debt. While the coronavirus pandemic has led to some loan relief, this has not solved the problem but merely held it at bay.
The goals of the tuition strike vary depending on each school’s unique issues, but all of the organizers I spoke to see a clear connection between the movement for racial justice and the fight against student debt and college costs.
“If I’m fighting for other people, I really am fighting for myself,” says Luis Rubio, a junior at the University of Chicago and member of UChicago for Fair Tuition. “I am really convinced that that is one of the most powerful ways to make change in this world, to see other people’s struggles as your own, in a way.”
The organizers of the United Student Front are focused on leveraging a student strike to push universities to acquiesce to student demands around racial justice, such as targeting campus police budgets.
“Not paying tuition because I’m not getting the service that I was promised is one thing, but not paying tuition because my money in some way is going to the subsidization of one of the most lethal institutions in the country is a different thing,” says Charles H.F. Davis III, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan. “There’s something there that has to be understood about what all these relationships are, when we think about not just how the university makes money, but what it spends its money on and why.”
Villanova University education professor Jerusha Conner, whose book The New Student Activists was released in February 2020, ties this into the increased social awareness of current and incoming college students. Across her research, racial justice was the top issue area in which student organizers were engaged.
“In my book, the data for which was collected in 2015 and 2016, I found that nearly half of the students who saw themselves as activists in college had arrived on campus with that identity well-formed,” Conner says. “I am certain that number has only grown since.”
The first student strike actions took place early in the pandemic. In April, at the University of Chicago, student organizers brought together existing student groups to form the coalition UChicago for Fair Tuition.
“There’s a certain understanding by folks that being a college student or having a bachelor’s degree isn’t going to save you from the injustices of the world.”
Initially, the campaign demanded a 50 percent reduction in tuition expenses for the spring semester, a tuition freeze, increased transparency about university budgeting, and cost adjustments for graduate students. The University of Chicago fundraised $5 billion in 2019, on top of its $14 billion investment portfolio that includes an $8.2 billion endowment. Advocates see this as evidence of the university’s ability to provide relief for its student body.
“A bunch of people were being thrown into really volatile situations, either with their family back home or with just trying to figure out what the hell is going on here in Chicago, and we just saw the university doing very little to support students,” recalls Rubio. “That was really frustrating. I mean, for myself, I needed resources from the university that [it] didn’t give me. And that was the situation for thousands of students across campus.”
More than 1,800 students and UChicago community members signed a petition backing the 50 percent tuition cut. By mid-April, the university committed to a tuition freeze for the undergraduate college and at least one graduate program, without addressing the other demands. Campaign organizers rallied students around withholding their tuition payments due at the end of April. Ultimately, more than 200 students withheld their payments.
A similar tactic paid off in Iowa, where Iowa Student Action, a chapter of the national Student Action network, spent nearly two years prior to the onset of the pandemic fighting against planned statewide tuition hikes.
“Student Action nationally is building the movement for free college for all,” says Sara Castro, a senior at Grinnell College, a private college in Iowa. “A student movement, and the way that is related to the work that we do in Iowa, is really challenging the decision makers in Iowa, specifically around education.”
Iowa’s three public universities—University of Iowa, Iowa State University, and the University of Northern Iowa—are controlled by the state’s Board of Regents. Iowa Student Action consistently held direct actions protesting the tuition hikes, most recently in February.
“[Tuition hikes] definitely hurt students and their families,” Castro says, adding that “when tuition goes up, campuses get wealthier and whiter. [They get] more dangerous for working class folks, and queer folks, and Black and brown people. There’s a real cost and a danger to that, too.”
The campaign was sustaining momentum when the coronavirus pandemic struck. Student workers on campus, who relied on their university jobs to get by, were suddenly laid off, leaving them scrambling to pay rent and stay safe. On May 1, Iowa Student Action released a list of demands, calling for tuition reductions throughout the COVID-19 pandemic, a five-year tuition freeze, and a 50 percent refund for the spring 2020 semester.
One strength for college organizers, notes Conner, who wrote the book on student activism, is their tech literacy. As shutdowns drove students to organize online, “the pivot to digital organizing was seamless; indeed, many groups were already meeting online,” using platforms like Slack and Instagram to stay connected, she says.
Online organizing also created space to connect across geographic areas, students interviewed for this article said. But the work didn’t happen only online; throughout the summer, students joined in the Black Lives Matter protests against police brutality.
“Campus-based organizing suffered some setbacks last spring when schools closed, particularly in places like [University of California] Santa Cruz, where grad students were picketing, and Syracuse [University], where #NotAgainSU students were in the midst of an occupation and negotiations with administrators over their demands,” Conner says. “However, [the tuition strikes] have shown the power of student activists to adapt to the constraints of the current circumstances.”
While the spring brought a rash of immediate reactions to the pandemic and changes to schooling, the summer and fall have brought new conflicts and concerns to students nationwide. Schools spent August and September handling messy in-person reopening processes, many going remote soon after due to COVID-19 outbreaks.
As a part of this transition, universities have placed a ridiculous burden on students to avoid the spread of COVID-19 on campuses. Government officials and university administrators alike have blamed young people for new cases, insinuating that they aren’t doing their part to stop the spread.
“We’ve literally never let students determine policy. Ever. And all of a sudden you’re going to leave it up to people who we already know are going to do what they’re going to do?” asks Davis of the University of Michigan. “People are underage drinking. They’re engaging in, you know, various activities without the use of protection, they’re just doing all of these things that people do, and you’re gonna say a pandemic is left up to students wearing masks?”
As Davis observes, those very colleges now struggling to transition to online learning spent years demeaning online education and valorizing the “campus experience.” There was an obvious financial incentive to do so, but now they’re struggling to maintain that economic set-up without risking lives.
At best, campuses are assuming some modicum of risk: As I reported for The Progressive earlier this fall, Cornell University relied on a “science-based model” that assumed a percentage of the university community would become infected.
Left out of this conversation is the fact that no college truly exists in isolation. “It’d be different if we all lived on these islands of universities and it was a bubble,” says Davis. Citing his own campus, he says, “You’ve got folks from all across the state of Michigan coming to and from campus however they so choose any given weekend.” Even if the campuses shut down, “Ann Arbor will still be here, Ypsilanti will still be here, Detroit, for people that are going for their cultural excursion from the university, will still be here.”
Several campaigns, including at Rice University, sought to prioritize the surrounding community’s safety. “People understand that something like campus police isn’t just about how it affects the students that are on campus, but it affects a lot of the communities within which they’re situated,” Davis says. “There’s a certain understanding by folks that being a college student or having a bachelor’s degree isn’t going to save you from the injustices of the world.”
“Maybe it makes more sense to be in the right relationship with people that are outside those campus walls, because in essence you’re fighting for the same thing, because the same thing is fighting you.”
American University student Miranda Dotson started observing these developments from far away: When COVID-19 began, she was studying abroad in Paris, France, and ended up staying there to ride out the pandemic. While in Paris, she witnessed the national strike over President Emmanuel Macron’s proposed pension reform plan, which began in December 2019 and continued into 2020. Simultaneously, France’s university system experienced student strikes in solidarity with professors and researchers.
“[Striking] was in the air in France,” Dotson says. “What was really mobilizing and empowering was to see the level, the extent to which strikers were able to mobilize as a united front, and have demands, and choke the system for a period of time.”
Between the winter strikes, spring quarantine, and the United States’ summer of unrest (that she was forced to witness from a distance), Dotson began thinking about how a student strike could transfer back home. At American University, conversations about racial justice were linked to those about sexual assault on campus, and movements around both had brewed for years. Over the summer, she created a survey to suss out others’ interest in the idea.
“Every university is different: I know that there are some universities [that] don’t have deep endowments, and there are universities who are like, Harvard, who have $40 billion,” Dotson says. Throughout the fall, the group that coalesced around this idea, now the United Student Front, has been working to spread into as many campuses as possible.
The goals of individual campus campaigns have many common themes, Dotson notes. These include wanting to abolish police from campuses, and reinvest those funds into student and staff wellness on campus. As she puts it, “There’s a lot of idea sharing and resource sharing that’s going on right now as a growing student network.”
Throughout 2020, campaigns popped up at campuses all over, such as Duke University. The spread of the idea is ongoing. On a mid-October evening, organizers at UMass Boston invited Dotson to a meeting to discuss pursuing such a tactic. I was able to attend.
“As students who pay tuition, we’re stakeholders in our universities, much more than our administrations would like us to believe that we are,” stated Dotson, addressing the group. “One of the biggest calls to action this year is divestment from police, and anything attached to policing, including prison and surveillance systems. So for our universities to continue to invest in prisons or industries that have links to prisons is in direct contradiction with any claims to anti-racism that the university has.”
Participants including facilitator Izabel Depina, an organizer with PHENOM, a Massachusetts statewide group organizing for free college, expressed excitement at the idea. In the meeting, organizers strategized how best to address their immediate concerns, like union organizing at UMass Amherst, and also considered how and when they could feasibly roll out a tuition strike. For Depina, the urgency was palpable.
“There’s a lot of things that need to be happening because systematic racism exists, and our Black and brown students are suffering the most,” Depina said in the meeting. The group agreed to keep talking.
The student tuition strike movement is growing, and growing fast—but also trying to grow smartly.
“The striking tactic is most effective when there is a critical enough mass participating that it grinds business-as-usual to a halt,” Conner says. “The question for organizers to grapple with is whether they can mobilize a large enough base with the identity-based approach, or whether they need to erect a broader tent that includes all those affected, as well as their allies, in order to effectively disrupt the system and challenge the taken-for-granted assumptions of those in positions of power.”
Davis speculates that the pandemic has created an opening for intersectional, identity-based organizing that is united for racial justice, with a tuition strike as one tactic.
“[COVID-19] has so much cross-cutting impact that it forces folks to think about the things they have in common, more so than the things they have that are different,” he says. “You get a clear understanding of how class dynamics intersect with issues of race, how that also intersects with issues of gender [and] who the essential workers are in a variety of spaces.
“That revelation presents more opportunities for the coalition building, which I think we’re seeing.”