Student Financial Services started issuing registration holds for graduate student tenants on July 21, which barred them from registering for academic classes in the fall term until they paid their outstanding rent.
The administrative actions follow the newly-formed Columbia Tenants’ Association’s July 17 declaration of a rent strike. Strike participants are withholding their rent payments for the months of June and July, demanding universal summer rent cancellation, eviction stoppage, and fair lease renewals and extensions. While some participants have intentionally withheld their rent payments, others have been unable to afford their rent in the wake of financial burdens caused by the coronavirus pandemic.
To alleviate this pressure, the Graduate School of Arts and Sciences provided $1,500 universal grants and $1,500 need-based grants to Ph.D. students on nine-month appointments. Even still, many graduate students remain unable to pay their rent as the University has not provided direct rent relief to its residential tenants.
Delayed or missed class registration for graduate students may also be accompanied by other complications, such as ineligibility for student health insurance. Further, international Ph.D. students at GSAS must provide the basis for their tuition charges and full-time student status by registering for at least one Residence Unit per semester or else risk losing their student visas. Graduate students—both domestic and international—who hope to work as teaching assistants are also required to register for a teaching seminar. Without the ability to register for units and classes, graduate students’ fall employment at the University could be jeopardized.
Joanna Lee, a Ph.D. candidate in GSAS, received a hold on her registration after she failed to make rent payments to UAH. As an international student, both her visa and her ability to work as a teaching assistant rely on fall course registration.
“I feel like Columbia can make all these decisions on my life now, including whether I have a place to stay, including whether or not I can receive an income, including whether or not I have the right to stay in this country,” Lee said.
Some tenants were notified in early July that “legal action may be taken as provided by law” if they failed to pay off their balance, at which point tenants “may be liable for legal fees as well as the outstanding rent.” A subsequent email about overdue rent payments dropped the mention of legal action.
Columbia UAH’s rental payment policy states that the University can withhold registration privileges, diplomas, certificates, and transcripts if tenants fail to pay rent. A Columbia spokesperson told Spectator that “administrative holds occur once an account balance exceeding $1,000 remains unpaid,” and that “the hold has no impact on a student’s housing status and does not generate any late fees.”
The spokesperson also stated that students with registration holds are directed to work with their Financial Aid office, which “can provide various resources and options, as well as some additional flexibility in this moment.”
However, the financial aid office is an unfamiliar entity to some graduate students on funded programs. After Lee inquired about addressing her registration hold, Student Financial Services advised her to consult with a financial aid department she had never worked with before.
“I’ve never worked with anyone who works for the financial aid department,” Lee said. “I don’t know who to contact in that department or what that process is supposed to be like.”
Graduate students cited the power dynamic this creates with a University that acts both as a landlord and degree-granting institution, particularly as the provision makes their academic trajectory dependent on their ability to pay their rent.
“The root of all of these problems is the fact that rent is tied to registration and therefore our student status,” Yasemin Akçagüner, a Ph.D. candidate in GSAS, said. “If we were not living in Columbia housing, this would not be a problem because our landlord [would be] completely separate from the institution that grants us our education. So it’s really disturbing that your education can be threatened by your inability to pay rent.”
Other graduate students have taken drastic measures to pay their housing balances to UAH in order to avoid registration holds. Cynthia Moreno, SSW ’21 and the president of the CSSW Student Union, took out a payment plan for her summer housing. Moreno was unable to afford the payment of over $1,000 that was immediately due, so she took out a loan against her mother’s home mortgage to pay. The following month, she was still unable to afford her payment, so she used a high-interest cash advance to avoid a registration hold.
“I give a lot to the University as a student leader,” Moreno said. “Giving all this time and still being a 4.0 student and them not really having my back when I need it has been really bitter.”
Columbia Residential has waived cancellation fees for tenants who cancel their leases before Aug. 15, but some graduate students, including Akçagüner, cannot justify breaking their leases without guaranteed access to Columbia-owned housing for the spring semester. International students often do not have a U.S. guarantor or credit score, both of which are necessary in order to qualify as tenants in apartments off campus. As a result, some international tenants are still financially responsible for leases they cannot afford to pay after leaving New York City or returning to their home country due to the pandemic.
Following public outrage, international students’ fears of losing residency were somewhat alleviated when President Donald Trump’s administration walked back on its order to deport international students enrolled in an exclusively online curriculum at their universities. But some Columbia graduate students without U.S. citizenship fear that the University could leave them without secure housing during an unstable period.
“Some of us are international students, and in this climate of everyday worrying and wondering [if] there is going to be another ICE decision that means I will have to leave or enter the country suddenly. It’s doing a lot of psychological harm to have to face this kind of uncertainty at the national level that’s only exacerbated by what Columbia has been doing,” Akçagüner said.