Volume 75, Number 43 | March 15 -21 2006

A member of New York University’s Tuition Reform Action Coalition used the snow for a protest placard at a demonstration this winter.

Students want runaway tuition hikes back on track

By Alex Schmidt

Each year, New York University students receive a long, puzzling e-mail: the annual tuition hike notification. These memoranda are about N.Y.U.’s progress as an institution with a brief mention of the tuition hike buried near the end. They contain little, if any, in the way of a concrete mathematical breakdown justifying the hike.

Asaf Shtull-Trauring, an N.Y.U. undergraduate, received his second such e-mail in April of last year. Frustrated by the lack of a clear rationale for the hike and the lack of recourse for appealing the increase, he sent an e-mail to friends whom he knew had also received the notification, hoping to learn whether he was alone in his aggravation. Though many of them had not even realized the message was a notification of tuition increase, when they did, the response was tremendous.

“So,” said Shtull-Trauring, “I decided that it was time for students to organize and build a campaign to change a situation where they feel as though they’re not educated enough to respond.”

The result was the N.Y.U. Tuition Reform Action Coalition, or TRAC, an organization Shtull-Trauring says has grown into something much bigger than his initial idea.

TRAC is N.Y.U.’s version of the Student Organized Tuition Reform Committee that has sprung up at several universities across the country with varying results. Yale’s Undergraduate Organizing Committee last spring succeeded in convincing the university to eliminate parent contribution to tuition for students from families earning under $45,000 a year, while Columbia’s student organization is pressing forward with demands similar to TRAC’s.

TRAC, whose platform is “Accessibility, Affordability, Accountability,” makes two demands of N.Y.U.: first, that the university guarantee a stabilized tuition rate for undergraduate students by aligning increases to the annual inflation rate, and second, that the university undertake a comprehensive financial aid reform policy to increase economic diversity among the student body and decrease the financial burden on students.

TRAC’s first step was a formal letter sent in September to N.Y.U. President John Sexton outlining the coalition’s demands. Two-and-a-half months later, President Sexton responded with a rejection. He argued that tuition is shaped not by cost of living, but rather by cost of education, and that N.Y.U.’s endowment is relatively low compared to that of other universities. TRAC responded with a letter published in Washington Square News, the school’s undergraduate newspaper. Among other things, TRAC’s letter pointed out the 56 percent growth in N.Y.U.’s endowment over the past five years and the growth of average student debt by $10,000 in the same period.

John Beckman, an N.Y.U. spokesperson, stated that while TRAC’s analyses have been interesting, they “probably have not sufficiently accounted for some of the things that N.Y.U. does do.” He pointed out that the university spends more on financial aid than any of the other private universities ranked above it on the US News and World Report’s “America’s Best Colleges” list, and that the university has a higher percentage of students who are Pell Grant recipients than any of the other private universities on the list.

Shtull-Trauring explains, however, that while many facts and figures have been cited, the debates have occurred without the benefit of certain key statistics: N.Y.U.’s full budget breakdown and a disclosure of the way the university’s financial aid office works. Without this information, says Shtull-Trauring, holding a fair discussion on tuition and financial aid matters will be impossible. Consequently, TRAC has focused on convincing the university to disclose these figures, efforts that, to date, have been unsuccessful.

The university’s budget was a focal point of the tuition discussion at an N.Y.U. town hall meeting held last week. Sexton spoke with students at what Beckman called a “very positive” meeting. “We shared documents with them…on the budget and we had an extensive, detailed and candid conversation,” Beckman said.

Shtull-Trauring disagrees about the university’s transparency. Rather than the comprehensive financial breakdown he had hoped to see at the meeting, he says students were shown general pie charts that did not illustrate how their tuition dollars were being spent. “It’s ironic considering that the president started off speaking about how in contemporary conversation there is a tendency toward simplification instead of high-level discourse….and then [he] uses rhetoric instead of facts in his discourse with the students,” said Shtull-Trauring.

In addition to the pie charts, Shtull-Trauring said Sexton was disingenuous in the figures he cited verbally: “He was throwing out numbers that at the time we had no way to verify but later when we looked at them, we realized they were far from accurate. It was very patronizing.”

TRAC is working on a response to Sexton’s statements while also “generally stepping up our efforts,” as Shtull-Trauring put it. The organization already has the backing of 32 student groups, making it one of the broadest coalitions ever formed at N.Y.U.

At the town hall one administrator reportedly remarked that such campaigns die out when students graduate. Shtull-Trauring said they told her, “ ‘We’re in it for the long run, and we’re not going to give up.’”

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