The eve of the Wednesday, April 1 budget deadline to determine state approval of more SUNY-wide tuition increases prompted a student rally at SUNY New Paltz Tuesday afternoon. Protesters sought a tuition freeze in light of ever-growing student loan debt and called for the college president to withdraw his support for the plan that raises tuition every year.
In 2011, state legislators approved the “rational tuition plan” to “modestly” increase tuition by $300 each year for five consecutive years in order to rid the system of unpredictable price hikes students had faced in earlier years — as in the fall of 2003 where tuition rose $950 from the previous year, according to sunysa.org. As the plan’s fourth consecutive year comes to a close this spring, the New Paltz chapter of the student advocacy group, New York Students Rising (NYSR), set out to raise awareness of student debt realities and spark a conversation among other SUNYs to oppose a reinstatement of the tuition plan when it arrives to the SUNY Student Assembly (SUNYSA) conference later this month.
Just before noon on Tuesday, student protesters convened outside of the Humanities building, urging others sitting in class to walk out and join their movement. After 15 minutes, nearly 120 people had gathered on the sidewalks, some brandishing homemade signs, shouting “Education is a right!” “Raise hell, not tuition!” and “Save our SUNY!” to display opposition of future tuition increases.
Throughout the rally, more than a dozen students took to the bullhorn to tell of their personal accounts struggling with student debt, citing a consistent rise in their tuition that has made the daunting reality of paying off college loans for the greater portion of their adult lives even worse.
“At graduation day, I will not be thinking of getting my diploma,” third-year graphic design major Nicole Striffolino said. “I’ll be thinking of the some $20,000 in debt waiting for me after I walk off that stage and into the real world.”
Striffolino continued, urging students to find comfort in knowing that many others their age are facing the same debt.
“Who can afford paying full-time tuition when paying it requires a full-time job?” she asked the crowd. “We are not alone in these numbers.”
Another speaker, second-year psychology and Black Studies double major Rookie Reynoso, a Dominican Republic native, shared that the ongoing tuition increase is another obstacle for students from other nations to overcome.
“I’m here representing the students who came here for a better educational opportunity, but because tuition is so expensive, we get thrown into the same cycle of trying to struggle to get our children to go to college — just like our parents,” Reynoso said.
Village of New Paltz mayoral candidates Tim Rogers and Amy Cohen also shared their insight with the crowd; Rogers cited that at 44 years old, he still has student debt to pay from his college years, while Cohen commended the group for “standing up for their right to an affordable education.”
Well over an hour into the rally, the nearly 45 student protesters began a march across campus with their banners and signs, in route to college President Donald Christian’s office in the Haggerty Administration building.
Their goal, fourth-year NYSR member Sadie Godlis said, was to stage a sit-in outside of Christian’s office until he accepted their list of demands — items including suggestions for him to tell SUNY Chancellor Nancy Zimpher and Gov. Andrew Cuomo to cap tuition at its current level, restore state funding to a minimum of 50 percent and to support the DREAM Act, which gives immigrant students raised in the U.S. a chance to pursue higher education.
Halfway through the sit-in, University Police officers arrived to ensure that protesters were not blocking exit-ways incase of an emergency.
After 20 minutes of waiting in the hallway, Christian emerged from his office to accept the large white sign, titled “Our Demands,” from the group. Though the interaction lasted less than a minute, NYSR member Rebecca Berlin said this was an indication of the group’s overall cause coming to fruition.
“Having enough student support to have a sit-in is evidence of the success of the rally,” Berlin said. “Students are crying out for increased dialogue with their president and the opportunity to express their concerns face to face — [and] it was an inspiring experience to have student power push for President Christian to accept the demands himself.”
Though state legislature supported an extension of the rational tuition increase in their state budget, finalized Tuesday night, representatives from New Paltz’s SA will attend a mandatory, SUNY-wide conference with the system’s assembly (SUNYSA) April 10-12 to show their opposition of the tuition increases.
New Paltz SA passed a resolution against the tuition hikes last month — the first campus to do so within the SUNY system — with SUNY Old Westbury and SUNY Purchase’s student senate taking similar action. If the majority of schools represented at the SUNYSA conference oppose further increases of the plan — which expires after the 2015-16 academic year — it will not pass, Berlin said.
In a statement released later that afternoon regarding the demonstration, Christian said his support for SUNY’s rational tuition plan will remain the same.
“I appreciate our students’ commitment to educational opportunity,” he said. “The position I have advocated for is identical to that of the SUNY-wide Student Assembly — continuation of rational tuition coupled with increased state taxpayer support. These resources will allow New Paltz to continue the gains that tuition increases have made possible the past four years — more than 40 new full-time faculty, a veterans services coordinator and other student support staff, more course offerings, decreasing average class sizes [and] increased annual financial aid to more than $2 million, to name a few.”