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UChicago announces tuition freeze, but students still threaten payment strike

“We are not satisfied with the University’s response,” students with UChicago for Fair Tuition wrote.

Students on the University of Chicago’s campus in Hyde Park.
Students on the University of Chicago’s campus in Hyde Park.
Sun-Times file

Citing the coronavirus pandemic and its “profound” impact on University of Chicago students and their families, school officials have announced a freeze on the overall rate students pay for tuition, housing and fees.

But students who are threatening to refuse to pay tuition when it’s due at the end of the month — who previously asked for the rate to be cut in half — say the school’s efforts don’t go far enough.

In a letter to students sent earlier this week, university officials said there would be no increase “in the combined total” of tuition, housing and fees for college students for the 2020-2021 school year and that a “detailed breakdown of charges for each area will be finalized in the next few weeks.”

“The University of Chicago remains deeply committed to ensuring that students from every background, regardless of financial need, can find a home here,” Provost Ka Yee C. Lee and Dean of the College John Boyer wrote in the letter. “We recognize the economic pressure currently felt by many College students and families. The University will continue to do what it can to support its community during this unprecedented time.”

In response, organizers leading the potential student strike wrote that “UChicago for Fair Tuition is pleased to see the University taking into account the long-reaching consequences of a global pandemic, however it is still not enough for many members of the University community who are struggling to afford the Spring quarter.”

By the school’s own budget estimate, students could pay more than $80,000 next year on tuition, room and board, books and personal expenses. But since 2018, the school said, students whose families make less than $125,000 a year are guaranteed free tuition and students whose families make less than $60,000 a year also qualify for having their fees and room and board covered by financial aid. Most first-year students, the university said, get a financial aid package worth more than $50,000.

UChicago for Fair Tuition organizers said that as of Tuesday, more than 950 students were considering withholding their spring tuition payments unless the university cuts tuition by 50%, eliminates fees for as long as the pandemic continues, commits to greater transparency of the university’s budget and allows students to attend part-time, instead of taking a full course-load of classes, among other demands.

“We are not satisfied with the University’s response,” the students wrote. “The financial aid system is ill-equipped to handle rapid changes in families’ financial status. ... Students do not need more debt and, during a global crisis, many will be unable to repay loans.”

Citing the university’s $8.5 billion endowment and the fact that the school is one of most expensive in the country, the students say “UChicago has the means and the responsibility to provide financial relief for students during this difficult time.”

But university President Robert Zimmer wrote last week that the school’s endowment had lost value due to plunging financial markets. The school was also dealing with lost revenue from the University of Chicago Medical Center due to COVID-19-related work and an expected decrease in philanthropic contributions to the school, he said.

Because of that, Zimmer expected that the coronavirus pandemic would have “severe consequences” on the finances of the school, which would likely be greater and last longer than those during the Great Recession that began in 2008.

Zimmer announced that the school would freeze faculty, staff and administrative salaries next school year, as well as limit staff and academic hiring.