Out of Reach: Tuition Increase and Student Outrage

"Open the doors to all," declared City College founder Townsend Harris
in 1847. "Let the children of the rich and poor take their seats
together and know of no distinction save that of industry, good conduct
and intellect." And indeed, all students attended City College free
until 1976. Like the neo-Gothic campus--stunning, as if from the pages
of a fairy tale, yet physically decaying from underfunding and
neglect--Harris's vision has taken a beating over the years. Yet it is
still alive among City College student activists--and perhaps its time
has come again.

At 2 o'clock on a rainy late-April afternoon, City College students were
scheduled to walk out of class to protest proposed tuition hikes. Two
slender young men stood tentatively in front of the student union,
wondering if anyone else was going to show up. They'd seen a poster
about the walkout. One of them, Mohammed Ramin, a sophomore, had been
laid off from his job at Circuit City a month earlier. He was worried he
might lose some of his financial aid. Then, with a tuition hike, he'd be
unable to afford to stay in school. His friend Stanley George, also on
financial aid, said--in a sentiment being echoed by students all over
the country--that even without a tuition increase, "people right now
can't afford to go to school."

More students slowly gathered in front of the student union, and soon
hundreds were chanting, "Hey, hey, ho, ho! Tuition hikes have got to
go!" Ramin and George giggled shyly. But after a few minutes, they were
chanting too.

The City College students weren't alone this spring in taking action
against recession-inspired tuition hikes. Students also walked out of
class at Hunter and Brooklyn colleges and students rallied at Hostos
Community College. And the action wasn't limited to New York City. About
a thousand students at the University of Vermont participated in a
similar walkout, as did students throughout the University of California
system. In May some schools quieted down for exams, but students at
Central Washington University walked out of class. At the University of
Illinois, Chicago, students, community members and university workers
rallied against tuition hikes and layoffs. The message of these protests
is that state budgets should not be balanced at the expense of students.
Says Gionni Carr, the governor-appointed student representative to the
Tennessee Board of Regents, "They're treating us like we're ATMs, not
like we're the future of this nation."

Even before this recession, the high cost of college in America was a
crisis. The federal Pell Grant, the largest source of financial aid for
low-income students, covered 76 percent of tuition at public four-year
colleges in 1990-91. Today it covers less than half, according to the
National Center for Public Policy and Higher Education. Student
indebtedness has thus reached an all-time high: two-thirds of students
graduate in debt--about $22,000 per student on average, according to the
Project on Student Debt. A 2007 survey of college freshmen found that
almost 10 percent were not sure they'd have the funds to graduate. The
Washington, DC-based United States Students Association projects that in
the next decade up to 3.2 million qualified students will pass up the
opportunity to go to college because of the expense, which is, of
course, not limited to tuition. Carr, now a part-time student at the
University of Memphis, recalls, "Some semesters I couldn't afford to buy
all my books."

College affordability is not just a student issue. It is about what kind
of society we are going to have: one of well-educated citizens who are
able to grapple with questions about the meaning of life and the
existence of God, find cures for cancer, ease climate change and
critique the powerful, or one in which ignorance and mediocrity are
blandly, even cheerfully accepted. In Default, a
movie-in-progress about student debt, a young woman says, "We're just
going to get stupider until there's a change. We're just going to get

Particularly in urban schools, the protests are inspired not only by the
affordability issues but by outrage that the tuition isn't well spent.
At City College, students must contend with broken desks. Plumbing
problems are neglected, with predictably foul consequences. At the
University of the District of Columbia (UDC), where students managed
this year to delay a planned tuition hike through protests, Elissa
Selmore, a pre-med senior, points out that in the administration
building "everything works nice," but elsewhere on campus "steps are
crumbling, pipes are broken. In my biology lab, there's a big hole in
the wall. We have handicapped students, and the elevators and escalators
never work." Selmore, a 24-year-old single mother who must pay for
daycare on top of her other expenses, says, "You can't ask us to hand
over our money and not ask where it's going and what are the results."

While there could, in most places, be much closer cooperation between
faculty unions and student groups, they do seem to embrace each other's
concerns. "There's a myth that students only care about cost and faculty
only care about pay, job security," says Ferd Wulkan of the Public
Higher Education Network of Massachusetts (PHENOM), a coalition of
academic unions (who fund the network) and student groups. "But it's not
true. Faculty care about tuition because they care about their
students." Students, he says, know that faculty issues affect their
education. City University of New York's faculty and staff union, the
Professional Staff Congress, has been one of the most vocal champions of
affordable tuition. In Tennessee, students have been protesting
budget-cutting practices and faculty furloughs (forced time off for
professors). At UDC, says Selmore, students are worried about a similar
proposal. "Most of my biology professors are [grad students] at the
doctorate level," she says. "Are they the ones who will be downsized?"

Many activists direct their protests toward college administrations, as
students often do instinctively: during the walkout at City College,
protesters marched to the administration building to demand a meeting
with the president. But in New Jersey, students from all over the state
rallied at the Capitol against cuts to higher education, in alliance
with administrators. This makes sense: their interests are the same.

Private colleges and universities, too, have seen tuition rise as
endowments shrink. In May students at Muhlenberg College in Allentown,
Pennsylvania, held a hunger strike to protest large tuition hikes and
faculty layoffs; Vassar students used the same dramatic tactic to
protest the elimination of a summer jobs program for students in need.
But most private campuses have been quiet. At Sarah Lawrence College in
bucolic Bronxville, just outside New York City, many students' parents
work in the finance industry and have lost jobs; although the tuition
has increased only slightly, some formerly wealthy students are
struggling to stay in school. But there have been no protests. In part,
the recession inclines people to resignation and a sense that collective
sacrifice is inevitable. "I think most of us feel bad for Sarah
Lawrence," says student Maggie Murphy. "We want it to survive." Students
at Sarah Lawrence--which, at $53,000 a year, is the most expensive
school in the country--say their costs are so high already that the
increases seem small by comparison, and that many who can't afford it
stay away altogether, an analysis echoed by students at other private

Even at public schools, protesters are frustrated that more students are
not joining the cause. Part of the problem may be that organizing tends
to focus on the tuition hikes--which don't immediately affect
everyone--rather than broader issues of access. Activists at City
College and UDC say many of their friends are indifferent to the tuition
increase because they receive so much financial aid that they are
insulated from those costs. "It is kind of disappointing that there are
not more minority students here," says Fayola Powell, a quiet,
bookish-looking City College junior (who is black), as she gestures
toward the lounge of the Guillermo Morales/Assata Shakur Community and
Student Center, where an organizing meeting is taking place. "If people
get financial aid, they come here free. So they are just not worried
about it." In reality, however, at many schools the prevalence of
financial aid artificially inflates tuition, undermining the aid sources
in the long run. And in the short run, the financial aid programs also
create the illusion that middle-class and low-income students have
divergent interests.

Another obstacle activists face is America's widespread shame over
money. Although a college degree is increasingly needed in order to land
a job better than one at, say, Home Depot, people regard the high
tuition and consequent debt as an individual problem: "We knew what we
were getting into, coming here," says one Sarah Lawrence student. Even
at City College, a young woman points out at the organizing meeting that
students are defensive about their economic status: "People feel the
need to say, 'This isn't me; it doesn't affect me.'"

Though tuition increases usually result from shortfalls in state
budgets, the problem of college affordability demands national
solutions. After all, it's easy to see why, to administrators, a tuition
hike often seems like the only reasonable way to fill a hole in the
budget; only the federal government can make the large-scale investment
of resources needed to avert such measures. The United States Students
Association lobbied throughout the spring for more financial aid, and it
was successful: on April 29 Congress passed a budget that increased aid,
along with modest reforms of the student loan system, ending some of the
costly subsidies to private student loan companies. Student advocates
will be lobbying throughout the summer for President Obama's proposal to
increase Pell Grants substantially so students won't graduate with so
much burdensome debt.

Not surprisingly, European political imaginations, nourished by decades
of social democracy, run a little wilder. In Germany, where higher
education used to be free and tuition has existed only for a few years,
Bavarian students responded to increases by taking to the streets and
demanding the abolition of tuition. In Zagreb, students occupied a
building for five weeks in response to tuition hikes, demanding "free
education from primary school to doctorate."

Even here, neoliberalism hasn't completely foreclosed discussion of
socialized higher education. Not many politicians want to go there
yet--although John Edwards did, during the last Democratic primary. But
if a movement demanded it, who knows what might happen? Why not demand
that higher education be free? Why not take the meritocratic promise of
this country at face value and try to make it real? A few groups are
agitating for small reforms in the context of this far-longer-term goal.
City College activists constantly remind their fellow students that the
school used to be free. PHENOM, the Massachusetts coalition, "takes on
short-term issues, pennies more for financial aid"--"win a little, lose
a little," as staff organizer Wulkan puts it. But PHENOM also published
a paper advocating that community colleges be free and has been holding
public events to discuss this demand. The group has even started talking
to legislators about it. "They are receptive," says Wulkan. "Though, of
course they say, Not this year."

There are excellent practical reasons to make college free, beginning
with the Keynesian. "From the standpoint of stimulating the economy,
it's a no-brainer," says Adolph Reed Jr., University of Pennsylvania
political science professor and organizer of the Free Higher Ed!
campaign, originated by the Debs-Jones-Douglass Institute, a think tank
associated with the Labor Party. "It puts [government] money into play
and creates jobs by expanding the number of people who will go to
college." More important, Reed says, "education is a social right, like
healthcare." (This is a premise Americans accept when it comes to
younger kids: people had to fight for free high school in the early
twentieth century, but we now take it for granted, and we would find the
suggestion that only rich children deserve an education morally
repellent.) To Reed, it's uncivilized that we don't have free higher
education already. "To oppose it is to embrace a conviction that not
everyone should be able to pursue an education, that it should be
rationed by cost." In any case, he argues, the "cost is so laughably
low": about $80 billion to make all public institutions free, much less
than the recent bank bailouts.

This sort of vision--combined with demands that may sound more
"reasonable" and be easier to achieve quickly--attracts young people to
a movement. Asked what drew him to organize for the City College
walkout, Jason King recalls coming to a meeting in the Morales/Shakur
center--controversially named for two City College radicals accused of
involvement in political violence in the 1970s. "I saw mad revolutionary
type of shit," King says, pointing to the banners celebrating rebels
around the globe. "I'm in a very Renaissance stage of life," he muses,
"trying to figure out how the world works. Learning about this tuition
increase, I realize I've been very naive."

For those not inclined to revolutionary flourish or philosophical
exploration--although, of course, these in themselves are arguments for
a college education--there's always the democratic idealism of a
Townsend Harris. Or the equally old-school American Dream. As student
rep Gionni Carr puts it: "We are just trying to better ourselves."
Whatever the rhetoric, it's about time we educated everyone.

Obama's proposed reforms are a long way from this ideal, but they
reflect a widespread hunger for affordable education. While no movement
has yet emerged to force the president to be a real visionary, it's not
too bold to hope that his election signals a more thoughtful turn in
American politics. Obama seems to embody, especially in contrast with
his predecessor, the virtues of a great education. It is, then, a
promising moment to make a case for higher learning and for universal
opportunity. Says Wulkan, "There's been a slight change in everyone's
understanding of the world." That's not a bad place to start.

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