STUDENTS ON STRIKE: COVID-19 has sparked a new wave of activism.

AuthorMcmenamin, Lexi

From public institutions like the University of Iowa and the University of Massachusetts Boston, to private ones like the University of Chicago and Rice University, students across the country are coalescing around a novel idea: a tuition strike.

The massive mismanagement of the Coronavirus pandemic has forced college students to question the cost of their education, as schools that charge tens of thousands of dollars in tuition per year transition to online instruction.

"Students are really angry at the way that we're being treated right now," says Duke Escorcia, a senior at the University of Iowa and a member of Iowa Student Action. "We were already being taken advantage of by rising tuition costs." And now, there's the pandemic, which forced students back into classrooms or into spaces where COVID-19 protocols aren't followed. "It all comes together into all the energy that's buzzing around campuses right now."

"American students pay so much money," says Miranda Dotson, a senior at American University in Washington, D.C., and an organizer with the nascent national organization United Student Front. "If they withhold their dollars, there are a lot of universities that are tuition-dependent [which] would be forced to listen to, or in a position to negotiate with, students who strike en masse"

Broiling in the background is the rise of labor activism in education, including campaigns for unionization within university graduate departments as well as the #Red4Ed strikes of K-12 educators that made headlines throughout 2018 and 2019. The push for tuition strikes has also drawn strength from the mobilization for the Black Lives Matter movement that has brought tens of thousands of people to the streets around the country.

Early this year, Americans hit a record-breaking total of $1.6 trillion in student debt. While the Coronavirus pandemic has led to some loan relief, this has not solved the problem but merely held it at bay.

The goals of the tuition strike vary depending on each school's unique issues, but all of the organizers I spoke to see a clear connection between the movement for racial justice and the fight against student debt and college costs.

"If I'm fighting for other people, I really am fighting for myself", says Luis Rubio, a junior at the University of Chicago and member of UChicago for Fair Tuition. "I am really convinced that that is one of the most powerful ways to make change in this world, to see other peoples struggles as your own, in a way."

The organizers of the United Student Front are focused on leveraging a student strike to push universities to acquiesce to student demands around racial justice, such as targeting campus police budgets.

"Not paying tuition because I'm not getting the service that I was promised is one thing, but not paying tuition because my money in some way is going to the subsidization of one of the most lethal institutions in the country is a different thing," says Charles H.F. Davis III, assistant professor of higher education at the University of Michigan. "There's something there that has to be understood about what all these relationships are, when we think about not just how the university makes money, but what it spends its money on and why."

Villanova University education professor Jerusha Conner, whose book The New Student Activists...

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