SUNY New Paltz students walk out, demand tuition freeze

Last Friday, SUNY New Paltz students walked out of their classrooms at noon in coordination with a statewide student walkout organized by New York Students Rising. The student activist organization encouraged students to walk out in protest of SUNY’s “rational tuition” policy. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Last Friday, SUNY New Paltz students walked out of their classrooms at noon in coordination with a statewide student walkout organized by New York Students Rising. The student activist organization encouraged students to walk out in protest of SUNY’s “rational tuition” policy. (photo by Lauren Thomas)

Protesting the so-called “rational tuition policy” imposed under the SUNY2020 plan, students walked out of classes at noon on Friday, some with the support of their professors. The walkout was organized by New York Students Rising, a theoretically statewide organization that has its most robust presence on the New Paltz campus. Students at several other SUNY campuses reportedly also joined in, albeit in smaller numbers.

At issue is the plan to continue regular tuition increases of $300 per year for the next five years under what’s called a “rational” policy. When the policy was first passed in 2011, SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher said in a statement that it “instituted fair, rational and predictable tuition reform in New York State, providing peace of mind for SUNY students and their families,” while in the same press release Governor Andrew Cuomo asserted that under the plan, “students and parents will be able to reasonably plan for college expenses instead of being subject to the dramatic tuition increases and uncertainty of the past.” New Paltz president Donald Christian said at last Thursday’s College Council meeting that he supported the tuition policy for the same reasons. Last year, the statewide student government organization likewise agreed that extending the regular tuition increases, together with a push to restore state aid, was preferable to any alternatives.

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Students paying that tuition see things differently. Since the plan went into effect, tuition has been increased $1,500, which represents a 30% hike. They place that in the context of Zimpher herself earning $655,000 last year, and state aid which is at less than half the level it was ten years ago.

Carrying a large picture of Cuomo on a stick, Brandon Missig said that continuing raises for top SUNY administrators is just evidence of the disconnect in Albany. The political science major believes much of the funding problem could be eliminated by an additional “millionaire’s tax” on the state’s top earners, but instead what the legislature provides is an exemption for high-priced yachts.

“People don’t understand that we’re already paying taxes” directly or through their families, said Kelsey Ryan, one of the organizers of the walkout, and that tuition hikes are crippling to some students in particular, such as students of color.

Nicole Striffolino, another organizer, agreed. “Higher education should be a right,” she said. “It’s the key to social mobility,” and the long years of state-aid cuts have gutted the diversity of the campus community.

When the two spoke ahead of the event, they said that they hoped to see 1,000 students leave their classrooms. Estimates ranged anywhere from 100 to 400 who attended the rally and marched through the campus, but it’s difficult to say how many may have left class and simply gone elsewhere. While the ensuing march was part of the strategy, “showing them what it would be like without us” was also a key component. Striffolino said that all professors teaching at that time were contacted to assure them that the protest was not aimed at them, and to ask them to support the walkout. A number of students who participated did say that their professors ended class early to allow them to leave.

Many of those who participated fit a profile: white students in their late teens or early twenties, who were paying for school through loans and partial parental support. All who were asked said that they were supporting Bernie Sanders in the upcoming presidential election. Many of them weren’t yet feeling the impact of their loans, and said that they were marching to support fellow students who worked several jobs and still struggled to pay for their education.

“If we’re loud enough,” Striffolino said to the crowd gathered outside the humanities building, “they will have to listen to us, and freeze tuition!” The assembled throng set off on a march, driven by such chants as “Higher ed, not debt.”

The march was followed by mass calls to the governor’s office to make the case for a tuition freeze, and begins “20 days of action” by the New York Students Rising to raise awareness of the issue and push for change.

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