More than 1,000 Columbia University students are withholding this semester’s tuition as they demand that the Ivy League school in New York City lower its cost amid financial burdens and the move to online classes prompted by the Covid-19 pandemic.
Students initiated the tuition strike last Friday, when payments for the semester were due. In a sweeping list of demands, students accused the school of demonstrating a “flagrant disregard for initiatives democratically supported within the community.” The striking students are asking the school to lower tuition by at least 10 percent and to increase financial aid.
The letter also asks the school to end its expansion into and gentrification of West Harlem, defund its university police force and bargain in good faith with campus unions.
Columbia is making money as its endowment grows in the stock market, but it is providing little additional relief to students, the strikers claim. Columbia has an endowment of more than $11 billion, and it reported more than $300 million in gains during the pandemic.
Tuition for undergraduates is $58,920 for an academic year, and the total costs eclipse $80,000 when fees, room and board, books and travel are factored in, the university estimates. Both undergraduate and graduate students are participating in the strike.
“Online college has made me understand that Columbia does not care for its students,” said Matthew Gamero, a sophomore studying political science and history, who withheld his tuition this month because, he said, he feels as though the school is using him to make a profit.
Gamero, 19, from Queens, New York, said he wants the school to be held accountable for its leaders’ decisions, for students to have more of a voice in how it is run and for the community that surrounds the campus to benefit from the strike.
“This movement is just as much ours as it is theirs,” he said.
The strike has been organized largely by the campus chapter of Young Democratic Socialists of America, which has partnered with other student groups to support the action. Student organizers say they have already won concessions, including the university’s agreement to divest from fossil fuels, a longtime demand.
Students at the University of Chicago staged a similar strike in the spring, when about 200 students withheld their tuition.
Activists said they want Columbia to go the way of Williams College in Massachusetts, which announced that it will lower tuition by 15 percent for the 2020-21 academic year. They are also looking to their peers in the United Kingdom, where some students have begun withholding rent on campus housing and more are threatening to do so as the pandemic, they say, steals much of their college experience.
The Columbia students claim that despite reassurances from university leaders that late fees would not be charged for January tuition, some were assessed the $150 penalty.
Columbia said it suspended a 1.5 percent monthly fee on balances due on unpaid charges but made it clear to students that a $150 late payment penalty would be assessed for unpaid charges on bills incurred before Dec. 19.
University leaders also acknowledged that they have heard the students’ demands.
“This is a moment when an active reappraisal of the status quo is understandable, and we expect nothing less from our students,” a university spokesperson said in an emailed statement. “Their voices are heard by Columbia’s leadership, and their views on strengthening the University are welcomed.”
Willem Morris, 23, a senior from Montana studying history, said that 4,300 of the more than 30,000 students who attend Columbia support the strike and signed on to the demands but that not all withheld tuition.
The strike demonstrates that students have the power to make ambitious demands on a university that is meant to serve them, said Morris, who wants to become a labor organizer when he graduates in the spring.
“We are inspired by the concessions Columbia has already made, and we are optimistic we will make further gains,” he said. “We are willing to continue to strike until the rest of our demands have been met.”
Ben Kesslen is a reporter for NBC News.