College tuition is a large financial burden—especially now—and students want to see change.

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An illustration of a piggy bank with no money in it to pay for college tuition because of a strike.
Credit: Illustration by Yeji Kim

For years college degrees have been seen as passports to a better, more lucrative lifestyle, and parents and students have, in large, shouldered the costs.

In the last two years, the amount of money owed in Parent PLUS loans has risen by $10 billion and student loan debt totals $1.68 trillion, growing six times faster than the nation's economy. Millennials have had to delay milestones, such as buying a home. Thirty percent of students live below the poverty line. And high costs are hitting Black students, nearly 50 percent of whom use federal loans, the hardest.

All the while, schools have cashed in. The average cost of attending a four-year school in the U.S. rose by 497 percent from the 1985-86 school year to 2017-18, and Columbia University in New York, for example, saw their endowment grew $310 million during the pandemic alone.

Students are starting to take action. In April, students at the University of Chicago went on a tuition strike, where they threatened to withhold tuition payments until demands were met. And now students at Columbia are doing the same after the university did not lower its $60,000 a year tuition, despite shifting to mostly remote learning.

"It's not the same education," says Christian Flores, a junior at Columbia who helped organize the threatened strike of more than 4,000 students earlier this month. "Students don't have the same access to libraries, facilities, and labs. I know people who have had to order random biology equipment to their house. The idea that this the same level of instruction is, quite frankly, laughable."

So, what are tuition strikes, how do they speak to the crisis facing higher education, and how can you play a role in fixing things? Here, a more detailed look.

What Students Want

With tuition due January 22, student strike organizers at Columbia presented a list of demands to the university earlier this month and requested a meeting.

Demands included a 10 percent cut in tuition, fees, and room and board (schools such as Princeton, Georgetown, and Johns Hopkins have all reduced tuition costs by 10 percent), at least a 10 percent increase in financial aid, financial aid for summer classes, late fee forgiveness, and more.

While Columbia has given students not living on campus an allowance of $4,000 a semester, Flores says some of his friends have not received the full amount.

If their demands are not met or the two sides can't come to an agreement the students say they will withhold tuition.

"[Columbia student's requests] are legitimate," says Matt Newlin, Ed.D., a higher education consultant and speaker. "Students are trying to make this work for themselves. Getting a master's degree is the new high school diploma."

In the past, student organization movements have traditionally been brushed to the side. But today, "any person in our culture can mobilize more easily through social media," says Newlin. "A lot of people are looking for answers and explanations from people they are paying large sums of money to."

Flores hopes having something to actively threaten an administration with—a lack of money, in this case—will make people listen.

Columbia University announced recently that the university will increase financial aid for the spring semester and cease to charge late fees for tuition payments in January. Columbia also announced that students at the school of General Studies will receive a grant for summer classes.

The organizers of the strike have stated that the strike will move forward until all of their demands are addressed.

In a statement to Parents, a Columbia University spokesperson noted, "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."

On its website, the university also states: "We recognize these are extremely challenging and unique times. If you are a student experiencing financial hardship or are unable to register for an upcoming term as a result of account balances, please contact your school's financial aid office for assistance."

Flores receives enough financial aid to cover his tuition, but many of his peers aren't in the same boat. "We think that Columbia has the ability to do more," he says.

The Other Side of the Story

The student loan debt crisis has emerged as even more of an issue as the pandemic damages the economy and a new administration prepares to take over in Washington, D.C., but there are always two sides to a story.

In this case? Colleges are businesses. "Schools make a massive investment [for learning management systems] on the front-end to make sure that it's quality and the faculty are trained," Newlin explains. "Because they made an upfront investment, they need to recoup those costs for a number of years."

The flow of money at universities isn't always simple either. Take endowments, for example. You might balk if you see a school spending millions to renovate a stadium, but those funds are often earmarked and can't be reallocated for financial aid or such, explains Newlin.

In order to change that, colleges and universities would need to be better at seeking unrestricted funds from donors.

Columbia’s president, Lee Bollinger, acknowledged requests for the university to use endowment funds to meet demands for a reduction in the cost of attendance during the pandemic but stated using the endowment would not be possible because of financial restrictions.

What Can Be Done

The path toward "fixing" issues in higher education and tuition involves many different parties, including parents, students, and the universities themselves.

But in many ways, change starts with transparency. "One of the biggest problems with higher education is the opaqueness of higher-education finance," says Newlin. "How funds are allocated, how donor endowment funds are utilized, how tuition is assessed—it's all behind this smoke screen and students have been told for decades, 'Don't worry about the man behind the curtain. We know what we're doing.'"

To this extent, Newlin feels universities need to roll up their sleeves and open their ears. "They have to talk to students," he says. "Colleges and universities are not historically great at that. We don't always ask student opinions until we reach the point of demands."

As for what you can do as a parent or student? Start with these four strategies to get the support you need.

Use your voice.

Flores hopes Columbia's threatened tuition strike inspires other schools to do the same. "I think it's important for students to empower themselves and to organize to get a seat at the table," he says. But you don't necessarily need to strike to make change, says Newlin. "Student governments can be very powerful on campus, as can the student newspaper which can highlight issues to both the campus and the wider public."

Running for student government, attending meetings, or writing opinion pieces or letters to the editor of a student newspaper (or encouraging your child to do so) can all be effective forces of change.

Know who to talk to.

Newlin says schools often have ombudsman, or officials who act as objective mediators between students and administrators; they're often easier to reach than presidents or chancellors. "If the students can articulate clear grievances and expectations, they can be persuasive and get the message sent up the chain," he says.

Otherwise, it's important to know who to reach out to for what. For example, financial aid and admissions offices are typically overseen by one person, such as a dean or assistant vice provost, Newlin says. Consider researching the campus administration to identify the best person for your concern before you reach out.

Help your child out.

Making a sound argument isn't always easy. "Undergraduate students may not have the experience to articulate what they're feeling," Newlin notes. "Parents can help by asking students to articulate clear, definable goals, such as reduced tuition/fees and cost transparency, and help them investigate the campus leadership offices to target one or two important upper-level administrators to approach first." He also stresses the need for parents to reassure and support their students.

Know your money options.

If you're hurting financially, your options will largely depend on your school's policies, but Newlin suggests connecting with the financial aid office and asking about emergency grant aid. "Many schools have money set aside for this purpose, but it isn't unlimited," he says. If this isn't an option, find out what academic and financial aid implications exist before making any decisions about having to take a semester or year off. At Columbia, students who take leave risk losing guaranteed on-campus housing for the rest of their time there.

Ultimately, no matter how you do it, pushing for transparency, clarity, and conversations is important—and can (hopefully) contribute to change.