The University of Virginia (UVa) doesn’t appear amenable, at first glance, to a College for All (C4A) campaign. The median family income of students is $155,000, making UVa among the wealthiest universities in the nation, and student organizing culture has proven anemic for the past decade: besides sporadic demonstrations against defunding the financial aid program, AccessUVa, some years ago, hardly any student-led movements have succeeded in winning democratic reforms at UVa. If that wasn’t enough to crush the radical dream of C4A, University President Jim Ryan recently announced conservative, means-tested financial aid (tuition-free for family incomes below $80,000, cost-free below $30,000). It was my perception, at the beginning of the year, that a C4A campaign would be neither deeply nor widely felt because of all these factors.
I was wrong. UVa has not only been receptive to our YDSA-led College for All campaign, but has also served to highlight the broader contradictions of higher education in capitalism.
Since initiating our C4A campaign, we’ve collected over 500 signatures, and sent over 8000 emails to the Board of Visitor—our governing body—demanding cost freezes. Our conversations show broad and deep support despite an affluent campus. No matter the student’s political affiliation, status at the university, or even income bracket, C4A has strong support across the board. This is perhaps best explained by the material conditions of the university.
On Dec. 6, the Board of Visitors, met and discussed proposals for tuition increases for the 2020-2021 school year. At a meeting Nov 8. the Board announced they were seeking to raise tuition 3-4 percent and mandatory fees 3-6 percent. The University claimed to need $33 million in increased revenue paid for by the tuition and fees increase. The truth however is that the University is hoarding its wealth, constantly increasing costs on students. The last 10 years have seen $8,000 increases in tuition and fees, while the endowment has gone from $5.1 billion to $9.6 billion.
While up to date statistics are elusive, this endowment makes UVa one of the 20 wealthiest universities in the country, public or private. The constant cost hikes defy logic: a wealthy campus should be able to keep costs down, not increase them.
The key understanding is that despite UVa being a wealthy campus, the majority of students are still effectively working-class. In university, the difference between lower-income working class students and higher-income working class students is minimal compared to that between the ultra-wealthy and working class in general. Costs at the University are prohibitive for all working families. Per University numbers, in-state cost is $33,008 and out-of-state cost is $66,338 to $67,458. Even for relatively high-earning families, the full cost of attending the University is a significant portion of annual income; annual costs have gone up nearly $1,000 every year. Local Virginia students entering the University in 2015-2016 would pay $29,932 and fourth-year in-state students this year are estimated to pay $33,020. At this rate, paying full price to attend UVa means even with an $155,550 median income it is still a burden—even more so for out-of-state students, who pay double.
Yet, the University has already tried preempted these simple data points by saying they meet 100 percent of students’ financial need and cover tuition for those making below $80,000. These promises are misleading and are only superficial compared to a universal cost freeze. First, the promise to cover tuition for those making under $80,000 is not sufficient as tuition represents only half of the cost of attendance. This is why we opted to demand cost freezes including housing and fees. Second, affordable college shouldn’t be subject to the administrative whims of the next, less-generous Board of Visitors.. We want costs to be controlled so that college is affordable for all, unconditionally.This latter point is what the struggle for C4A is about as much as the immediate cost increases. To rely on generous administrators and donors is to always put working-class students in precarity. The fundamental problem is not solved by promises of further subsidies; it will be solved by an unqualified cost freeze.
Also among our demands are the “expansion of on-grounds housing at an affordable, and below market-rate price.” Crucially, the struggle for more affordable costs for University students can mirror and compliment community demands for more affordable housing. When it costs less to live off Grounds students take up more and more of the housing stock, raising prices and displacing our fellow Charlottesville community members. The University has let the private market account for 85 percent of student housing growth from 1992-2017. On-Grounds housing only increased by 717 units while the private market accounted for 3,946 more units. The failure to alleviate housing pressure on students has therefore now become a crisis for the entire city.
Jim Ryan’s proposal to have all second-year students live on Grounds could be a welcomed step towards relieving pressure on Charlottesville’s housing market, but it depends on whether it involves lowering the current cost of housing on Grounds. On-Grounds housing costs too much right now, though. The latest addition in housing is Bond which costs $7,850 per academic year, if you can find places renting for under $650 a month it makes more sense to live elsewhere. Lowering cost of attending the University has to include making the cost of living on Grounds significantly cheaper than the private market. Considering that University-owned dorms are not run for profit, the University can set costs as low as students need. We are attempting to show that the fight for affordable housing is not a choice between students and the Charlottesville community, rather it a choice between people and the University.
We have more work to do, and this semester will determine if we win or not, but I am optimistic for this campaign. And we, as socialists, are fighting at UVa because confronting the greed of universities is much like confronting the greed of corporations. When working-class people demand lowered costs at universities, we are struggling with an institution that fail to consider its nominal stakeholders: students, employees and the broader community. Corporations also care nothing for their employees or the community except for how their profits are affected. Students and workers do have the power to force the University and corporations to bow to the demands of working-class people; a mass movement of students, and workers can win, we have to organize it though.
Jacob Wartel is a member of YDSA at UVa, and Metro DC DSA. He studies the class characteristics of Riverdale.
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