Over 2,700 students have signed a petition declaring a tuition strike until Columbia meets its demands to reallocate the University’s spending. The tuition strike petition calls for a 10 percent reduction in tuition fees, a 10 percent increase in financial aid, to defund Public Safety, and to stop the University’s expansion into West Harlem.
The petition’s focus on community relationships and public safety comes in line with nationwide calls to reallocate funding from campus patrols following the wave of Black Lives Matter protests sparked by the high-profile deaths of many Black individuals at the hands of police. Meanwhile, the call to end student loan debt and decrease the cost of attending college throughout the coronavirus pandemic has also drawn more attention to how universities allocate their budgets and whether or not students and community members have a say in the process.
For the fall 2020 semester, Princeton University, Johns Hopkins University, and Georgetown University each decreased their tuitions by 10 percent. Meanwhile, institutions including Dartmouth College, Cornell University, and Stanford University have increased tuition in the range of 3 to 5 percent. Columbia and Barnard have maintained their tuition prices from the 2019-20 academic year.
The University has not responded specifically to any demands of the petitioners, including whether or not it would lower tuition for the upcoming year.
“Throughout this difficult year, which has entailed serious financial challenges for the University, Columbia has been focused on preserving the health and safety of our community, providing the education sought by our students, and continuing the scientific and other research needed to overcome society’s urgent challenges,” a University spokesperson said.
In response, student groups such as the Young Democratic Socialists of America, Students for Justice in Palestine, and Mobilized African Diaspora have begun circulating a petition calling for a tuition strike at all four undergraduate colleges.
“What we really wanted to do was to say that we don’t want Columbia to just brush aside any criticism. We want them to materially be affected, and we thought that the best way to do so would be through a tuition strike,” Christian Flores, CC ’22, an organizer of the strike, said. “We think that by having a large number of students refuse to commit payments, we would be able to pressure the institution financially.”
To pay for the strike’s demands, the petitioners call for the University to dip into its endowment, which grew by $310 million in 2020, and what they call “bloated” administrators’ salaries—University President Lee Bollinger was paid $4.6 million in 2018. For areas funded by endowment money, however, universities have less flexibility to reallocate funds, as those assets are restricted for certain purposes—often dictated by the wishes of the donors themselves.
Under the Uniform Prudent Management of Institutional Funds Act, which regulates endowments, funds within the endowment must only be spent on their allocated purpose.
An endowment is separated into hundreds, if not thousands, of individual funds with specific purposes, such as financial aid, salaries, and athletics, which must be adhered to and cannot be immediately pulled from the stocks and bonds where they are invested. After the donors have died, universities cannot reallocate funds against their wishes and cannot renegotiate the terms of the endowment.
Within Columbia’s 5,200 endowment funds, some are unrestricted, meaning they can be spent in a time of need. However, institutions still internally set limits on what these unrestricted funds can be spent on and what is defined as “urgent.”
While the pledge calls for the reallocation of money meant for Columbia’s Manhattanville expansion into Harlem to go to students, these funds are legally bound to the different projects they are being pulled from. Even though the University cannot legally change the reallocation of its funds, Columbia sets its own priorities for fundraising; what the University highlights to donors presents the futures of those allocations and encourages them to donate to certain areas.
While sympathizing with students not experiencing the educational and social experience they normally would receive on campus, Ohio University professor emeritus of economics Richard Vedder claimed that Columbia’s prestige might be what makes this strike unsuccessful.
“It’s less likely to work at Columbia than it would at schools with lesser reputations and less selective admissions because those other schools simply don’t have other students—they’re more desperate,” he said.
According to David Feldman, an economics professor at the College of William and Mary, the quickest way to get the kind of funds needed to cover the demands of the tuition strike is through layoffs and salary decreases of administrators, faculty, or staff more broadly. However, he noted that these cuts may not significantly impact Columbia’s budget.
“[Cutting executives’ salaries] will do next to nothing to Columbia’s cost but kick the proverbial bucket. Unless, of course, you’re going to define an ‘administrator’ as Columbia’s counseling staff,” Feldman said. “If what you’re thinking of is the deans and the president and the provost, it’s a drop in the bucket.”
While the University would not comment on whether students who participate in the strike will be penalized, under its current policy, students who do not pay their tuition will be unable to register for courses the next semester, receive their transcript, or graduate, and they may even have a collection service come after them.
Flores encouraged only students who could pay the late fees on their tuition to participate in the strike. However, as organizers prepare for the strike, they are in the process of setting up a relief fund to pay off the late fees of students participating. While Columbia met with MAD earlier this year, the University has yet to speak directly to the strike organizers.
“Currently, the plan is to continue to solidify our base and continue to advocate and fight for our demands. We as an organization do not want to stop striking until we feel that Columbia has made a reasonable commitment to our demands. And with respect to the late fees, that is certainly a risk we are willing to take,” Flores said.
At the time of publication, there were 2,700 signatures pledged to strike. However, since tuition is not due until Dec. 14, it is still unknown how many students will actually take part.