Although long-winded emails from the administration have attempted to normalize the current learning environment, students are still standing in the rubble of March’s upheaval. As the public health crisis continues to unfold, instructors and students are expected to conduct and participate in classes on Zoom for another semester without blinking an eye. Some lack a safe and quiet place to study or teach, and many face difficulties with online learning. With unemployment rates higher than they were in the Great Depression, a worsening mental health crisis, and a raging pandemic, the challenges and stressors that developed in March have only intensified.
Students have made immense compromises to continue attending classes: Undergraduates can no longer meet instructors and classmates face-to-face, access labs and library reserves, or, for the most part, live in a community with our fellow peers. The University has afforded us no such compromise. Tuition costs remain at the same exorbitant levels that they have in previous years. Students enrolled at Columbia College are still being charged a $501 Student Life fee before financial aid, even if they are halfway across the globe from campus. Many students have not had their work-study obligations this semester waived and, without grants to supplement this portion of their financial aid, they are still waiting to hear whether or not they will be placed in a remote work-study program.
A tuition reduction is necessary, not only because of the pandemic and online classes but also because the University administration possesses the financial resources required to alleviate student debt and unreasonable tuition costs amid the current economic crisis. Several peer institutions have already granted a 10 percent tuition reduction to undergraduate students this semester, with Williams College reducing its tuition by as much as 15 percent. The Young Democratic Socialists of America and the many signatories of the Fair Tuition petition demand that Columbia do the same in reaction to the economic crisis sparked by the current pandemic.
Columbia owes its students a reduction in the overall cost of attendance for this semester and a tuition freeze for all future semesters. This shouldn’t just entail a decrease in the “sticker price” of attendance, but also in the burden placed on students, which is why the tuition reduction must be accompanied by both an increase in financial aid of at least 10 percent and a waiver of the work-study requirement across all Columbia schools for the whole year. Given the costly projects and bloated administrative salaries ripe for overhaul, these reductions should not come at the expense of instructor and worker pay.
Columbia’s tuition costs already tower far above those of its peer institutions. If Columbia lowered its undergraduate tuition to that of the average Ivy League, students would receive an 8.4 percent tuition reduction. Even lowering tuition to match that of the next highest Ivy League, the University of Pennsylvania, would deliver a roughly 6.5 percent reduction. The higher cost of living in Morningside Heights cannot justify the unaffordability of a Columbia degree, especially since the University is one of the largest beneficiaries of high property values and patient-care prices in the city. If anything, the expensive surrounding area only compounds the burden on low-income students, who are left to choose between textbooks and their next meal.
Implementing this demand would return $8,034 to undergraduates, with the exception of those who are 90 percent covered by aid, in which case they would be refunded the value of their student contribution. This adjustment would bring much-needed relief to students, many of whom are on the verge of resorting to loans or already bear loan debt. Even for students receiving full-grant scholarships, the student contribution poses a significant burden that looms even larger during the present crisis.
For decades, tuition costs nationwide have grown at twice the inflation rate, now 278 percent of their 1970 equivalents, despite the fact that wages have stagnated for most workers. It’s even harder to view the tuition freeze granted by Columbia as benevolence considering that a majority of low-income Americans lost their job or took a wage cut since the pandemic’s onset.
In the midst of a severe economic crisis that has only exacerbated the injustices in our society, it’s particularly urgent for college to be affordable to all. Much more than a freeze is in order, and I cannot expect this to come easily from administrators with a history of increasing tuition during economic crises.
Organizing around tuition-related demands on our local level will pave the way for a long-term vision of nationwide student debt cancellation and college for all. Currently, not even public colleges are free to attend—this is one of the factors enabling private universities' high price tags. The City University of New York, once an example of a tuition-free public college, has been rolling back its progressive model since 1976, pushed amid a broader neoliberal tide by profit-seeking private university administrators. The tuition-free model at CUNY was replaced with a complex system of loans and grants that private universities like Columbia use to subsidize their own financial aid, enabling them to reel in extortionate tuition revenues.
Disheartening trends like those most hurt the people universities claim to care about: their students. However, this historical turning point offers us a choice: to stay the course of overpaid administrators and costly education or to take a stand against the University profiting off a pandemic.
Becca Roskill is a junior in the School of Engineering and Applied Science and a member of the Columbia-Barnard chapter of the Young Democratic Socialists of America. You can support the fight for Fair Tuition by signing onto the petition here: bit.ly/fair-tuition.