Columbia-Barnard YDSA is organizing a strike, demanding higher financial aid and lower tuition.

The Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America (YDSA) announced in October that they are organizing against the Spring semester’s cost of tuition. The broad demands of the strike include a minimum of a 10% reduction in tuition and other fees for the spring semester, a tuition freeze at that adjusted level for all future semesters, and an increase in financial aid by a minimum of 10%. The YDSA noted that tuition at Columbia University continues to be “exorbitant” even with the tuition freeze for the Fall 2020 semester and that the financial burden experienced by students reliant on financial aid and loans is egregious, given the economic uncertainty of the present moment. YDSA’s demands also include those of the Mobilized African Diaspora (MAD Columbia), those of Graduate Workers of Columbia-United Auto Workers, and “democratic student input into investment decisions.”

The tuition strike is not the first of its kind in this pandemic. UChicago for Fair Tuition (UCFT) organized against rising tuition rates in Spring 2020, calling for a tuition freeze that was met by the administration in late May. 

Despite following in UCFT’s footsteps, the YDSA tuition strike demands Columbia to reduce its tuition, not just freeze it. In their statement, they point out that the cost of tuition at Columbia has risen “over 50% in the past 15 years,” and despite high executive compensation and campus expansion projects such as Manhattanville, university trustees still retained $900 million of net income in 2017. 

The YDSA strike also serves as an extension of their pre-existing campaign to reduce tuition and increase financial aid awards. They also point out that this strike is closely tied to the demands of Graduate Workers of Columbia, who have been negotiating for Columbia to waive 50% of tuition and fee costs for all student workers. 

In response to questions concerning inclusivity and how all Columbia students can feel connected to the mission, YDSA informed Bwog that they are currently in the process of engaging with the Graduate Workers’ Union and Columbia’s student government. Furthermore, they pointed out that their demands “materially affect all students at Columbia, and [they] formulated them with that aim in mind.”

In anticipation of those concerned about the consequences of participating in a tuition strike, the statement notes that “the more people who join us in our tuition strike, the lower the risk will be for each individual student,” but even then, there could be late fees or registration holds. The YDSA states that if the strike achieves success, combined with their media strategy and other tactics, the strike “will be able to pressure the administration to back down from these forms of retaliation in addition to conceding our central demands.” They stressed that this strike will not go forward unless 1,000 students sign it, as they do not want to end up in a scenario where the administration could possibly retaliate against a handful of students. More recently, Columbia YDSA has stated on Twitter that over 2,500 students have signed onto the strike.

Bwog has reached out to CCSC, ESC, and GSSC for statements, which will be added to this post in an update if we receive them. A statement from SGA can be found at the bottom of this post.

Below is the statement sent to Bwog by Becca Roskill (SEAS ‘22) and Emmaline Bennett (TC ‘22), two of the lead organizers in the Columbia-Barnard Young Democratic Socialists of America:

Ever since the start of the pandemic, students at Columbia and across the country have been calling for reductions in the cost of tuition. We’ve tried everything from petitions to days of action to class-action lawsuits, but so far we’ve received only a tuition freeze at the same exorbitant levels as before: $53,040 or more for Teachers College, $55,781 for Barnard, $58,920 for Columbia College and SEAS, $61,180 or more for GSAS Master’s students, and $64,464 for General Studies.

To put this into perspective, the average yearly cost of tuition at a four-year university in the U.S. is $35,087. That means that, depending on the program, Columbia charges between 51% and 84% more for tuition compared to its peer institutions. Even compared to other Ivy Leagues, Columbia is by far the most expensive, at 9.1% higher than the average. 

Taking into account Columbia’s status as the wealthiest “non-profit” institution and the largest private landowner in New York City, its $11 billion endowment, and the fact that top-level administrators are paid up to $4.6 million a year, the administration clearly has the resources available to reduce tuition costs to a rate approaching that of other schools. 

This becomes even clearer when we look at the breakdown of Columbia’s finances. In fiscal year 2017, the Trustees of Columbia University received $3 billion from tuition, along with $1.8 billion in donations and $54 million in investment income. $2.2 billion of this total revenue went toward paying instructors and other campus workers. After subtracting executive compensation ($16 million) and expensive expansion projects like Manhattanville ($6.3 billion over the course of about a decade), the University Trustees are still left with a yearly net income of nearly $900 million. 

The same logic applies to Barnard and Teachers College, which, despite their separate financial structures, still possess massive endowments of $363 million and $345 million, respectively—quite enough to make a 10% tuition reduction possible at both institutions. Our demands would entail a $18 million loss of revenue for Teachers College and $16 million loss of revenue for Barnard, or about 4% of their respective endowments. A 10% tuition reduction at schools under the main Columbia umbrella would represent 2% of Columbia’s total endowment

Our aim is to shift this balance sheet towards the interests of workers and students, especially working-class students who have been increasingly burdened by the rising cost of tuition. Tuition costs at Columbia have increased by 50% over the past 15 years, and the only way we can stop these spiraling costs is to organize collectively for fair tuition. 

This is why we are building upon our campaign for a tuition reduction and increased financial aid throughout the past two semesters to organize for a Columbia-wide tuition strike in the spring. We have learned that petitions, even when backed by the signatures of thousands of students, will not get the administration respond to our urgent demands. Following in the footsteps of our peers at the University of Chicago, we are turning to the power of collective action to make our message heard loud and clear: it’s time for a major shift in institutional priorities, starting with a reduction of tuition to reflect that education will be prioritized over profit-seeking.

We view the issue of unaffordable tuition as closely tied to the demands of workers on campus, particularly those of student-workers who have been struggling against tuition hikes and cuts to labor protections for decades. These students who perform the labor of teaching and research, the University’s supposed main function, are constantly squeezed by rising costs of attendance and threats to their precarious incomes. The link between tuition costs and worker pay becomes clearer than ever amid an extreme economic depression. The University leans upon the same narrative of “budgetary crisis” to dismiss calls for a tuition reduction as it does to reject demands for guaranteed appointments or rent forgiveness, rather than using its resources to provide relief to student workers. The neoliberal conviction that crisis calls for austerity has students struggling to pay and workers struggling to make ends meet, while the administration keeps a close guard on the collectively produced store of wealth

It’s in light of this connection that the Graduate Workers of Columbia have been actively negotiating for the University to waive 50% of tuition and fee costs for all student-workers in the bargaining unit during their employment. Our campaign stands in solidarity with this demand and the GWC’s broader fight to improve the lives of Columbia students, workers, and tenants through collective action. Our demands are explicit in stating that we will not accept a tuition reduction that deducts from financial aid or instructor and worker pay.

Students considering joining the tuition strike might have a few concerns about the potential risks. We believe that the best protection against retaliation is to organize as many people as possible: the more people who join us in our tuition strike, the lower the risk will be for each individual student. But we also recognize that withholding tuition payments will involve some element of risk—for instance, the possibility of $50 late fees or registration holds. However, if the tuition strike is truly successful, and combined with a media strategy and other tactics, we will be able to pressure the administration to back down from these forms of retaliation in addition to conceding our central demands.  

Even students unable to withhold tuition can contribute to the strike effort by pledging to withhold donations to the university after graduation unless our demands are met. Considering that donations constitute the University’s second-largest source of revenue, this is also an important source of power we possess as students and alumni. 

Above all, this tuition strike centers the demands of students who rely on financial aid and loans—all the students who struggle to pay their student contribution while working and taking classes full-time, all the students who graduate with tens of thousands dollars in student debt that will take decades to pay off. 

We deserve better—especially at a time like this, when so much about our future is uncertain. Now more than ever, it’s time for us to stand together and fight for what’s right. 

Statement from SGA regarding the YDSA strike:

Despite the Columbia-Barnard YDSA tuition strike being cancelled for the Barnard community, SGA appreciates the demands that Columbia-Barnard YDSA organized as they aligned with the goals of the 2020-2021 SGA Policy Agenda. We understand the need to cancel the strike due to the consequences of not paying tuition on time at Barnard. We also understand that the tuition-depend nature of Barnard’s financial structure would have made the strike have an entirely different impact on the Barnard community. SGA appreciates Columbia-Barnard YDSA, and any student organizations, that are committed to racial and socioeconomic justice and holding administrators accountable.

We will update this post with statements from the three other undergraduate student bodies as we receive them.

Low Library via Bwog Archive