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Columbia College Student Council faces a moral dilemma: whether or not it should fund student groups that actively exclude students, even as the funds supporting these organizations come from the students excluded.

CCSC manages over $1 million in Student Activity Fees. Student Activity Fees are payments tacked onto student tuition and set by CCSC for Columbia College students. SAFs are the only financial resource CCSC has to foster community on campus, and CCSC allocates almost 90 percent of SAFs to student groups or funds that support them. If student groups are not functioning as vehicles to build community for students, then CCSC is not getting a return on its investment and not spending its resources effectively.

It has become apparent that student groups have put in place “barriers to entry” into their organizations. These barriers, which range from applications and interviews to tryouts and auditions, block students from the communities that student groups are meant to build and foster.

These competitive and exclusionary systems have come as a shock to many incoming classes of students. In a Spectator op-ed last year, a student described the process of getting into student groups as “applying to college all over again.” The writer noted how first-year students come in with the expectation that clubs will be a place to make friends, to try new things, and to do what they love. But many students instead find barriers to entry, competition, and in many cases rejection. For some student groups, especially performance groups where membership is based off talent, such rejection is often unavoidable. On the whole, however, these barriers to entry cause student groups to fail in the task of fostering community on campus.

When one looks through the lens of how student groups are financed, an alarming relationship becomes apparent: Every student pays for every student group, but only some students get to participate. All students pay SAFs. And nearly all student groups rely (entirely or partially) on SAFs for funding, either through an allocation or access to funds for facilities and security costs, emergencies, new events, and travel. So if you’re a student whose application gets rejected from a club or who doesn’t get a callback, not only are you then left out of a community, but you’re stuck footing the bill for that community through your SAF.  

This financing problem goes further for students who specifically came to Columbia to participate in activities that they may not have had access to in high school. When student groups institute barriers to entry that, in many cases, heavily depend on students’ high school experiences—and the high schools of Columbia students vary greatly in terms of financial resources—these applications and tryouts create a socioeconomic disparity. This disparity leads students either from affluent backgrounds or who went to resource-rich high schools to become more likely to gain access to student groups. The students who came to Columbia for the types of opportunities they didn’t have in high school are left unintentionally barred from these opportunities while still paying for them through SAFs.

My goal this year as CCSC vice president of finance is to make student groups more open and accessible. The CCSC Finance Committee will look to work with student groups on this matter. Every student group has different needs and structures, so the impetus will be on the CCSC Finance Committee to work with and find agreeable solutions for each student group that has these barriers to entry. For some student groups, open meetings may be the solution. For others, such as performance groups, the approach might be to sponsor new branches that do projects anyone can participate in, such as scene workshops, while still keeping the established groups intact. But ultimately, CCSC must move away from funding student groups whose communities are not open to everyone.

CCSC making unilateral or arbitrary changes to funding would be unfair to student groups, which is why CCSC must work with student groups to make these changes. But with respect to exclusive student groups that may refuse to work with CCSC in good faith to address this issue, I don’t see how CCSC in good conscience can continue to fund such organizations.

To make Columbia students apply and interview just to be allowed into a student group’s meetings is effectively taking money from students at the door but not letting them join the party. In my view, CCSC cannot financially support this unfair system.

The issue of opening up student groups to all students, however, is not black and white. For example, is it feasible for everyone who auditions for the Varsity Show to get cast? Is it reasonable, financially or logistically, to expect a student group that enters into intercollegiate competition to send 150 people on any given trip? I would answer no to both of these questions.

What is not unreasonable is to ask student groups to open up their communities on the most basic of levels, when all students are paying for the opportunity to participate. And as previously mentioned, being “open” will be different for every student group and activity. But if a group isn’t giving people the opportunity to participate on some level, however minimal, while still respecting its need to operate at its best, then students aren’t getting what they paid for, and that is where CCSC needs to draw the line.

If you are a first-year student and you find that there are roadblocks to participating in the communities and activities for which you came to Columbia, do not accept it as “just the way things are.” Let your student council representatives know you want this system to change. Better yet, get involved in student council and make that change yourself. Hopefully you will be part of the last class of Columbia students that faces barriers to joining the student groups they paid for.

The author is a junior in Columbia College majoring in political science and concentrating in computer science. He is the CCSC vice president of finance.

To respond to this op-ed, or to submit an op-ed, contact opinion@columbiaspectator.com.

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