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Hundreds refuse to pay UChicago as tuition strike takes off, organizers say: ‘This isn’t a bluff’

Julia Attie, an organizer of the strike, said she has received confirmation from about 200 students saying they withheld payments this week.

University of Chicago - University of Chicago students walk to and from the main quadrangle.
University of Chicago students walk to and from the main quadrangle.
Sun-Times file

As hundreds of students refuse to make payments to the University of Chicago, organizers say they hope the tuition strike will convince the school’s leadership to come to the bargaining table.

Students with UChicago for Fair Tuition demanded earlier this month that the university cut tuition by 50% and eliminate student fees for as long as the coronavirus pandemic continued, citing changing financial situations for students due to skyrocketing unemployment.

About 1,900 students signed a petition asking the university to cut tuition and 950 said they planned to withhold their money this past Wednesday when spring semester payments were due, the group said.

Julia Attie, an organizer of the strike, said she has received confirmation from about 200 students that withheld payments.

Students who withhold payment could be subject to a late fee, which organizers said they were trying to cover through more than $2,000 in donations raised by the group. Students who continue to strike could also miss graduation, the students say.

Attie, who plans to graduate with a bachelor’s degree in June, hopes it doesn’t come to that.

“We haven’t had any conversations [with school officials] yet, but we’re hoping that when they see this isn’t a bluff it will bring them to the table,” Attie said.

Laurel Chen, a graduate student studying social work, said she’s prepared to strike as long as necessary, even if it could affect her own graduation this year.

“Tuition is an essential source of funding for the University’s ongoing operations, including support for financial aid as well as faculty and staff salaries,” a university spokesman said in an emailed statement. “Reducing tuition for students regardless of their financial means would require substantial cutbacks in operations, which would hinder the University’s ability to provide all of its current educational offerings and to fulfill its core research and education mission.”

The spokesman did not respond to a question about consequences for students who do not pay, but said: “For students or families whose ability to make payments has been affected by COVID-19, the University has provided a Financial Hardship Form to apply for a payment extension. Otherwise, the University policy on timely payments remains the same.”

Chen, though, said the group has heard from students who say they have struggled to get additional aid from the university and said she’s also concerned about international students, who are not eligible. Even students who are able to afford this semester’s tuition, she said, some said they may not be able to return in the fall due to family job losses.

“Our goal is to come to an equitable solution with the university,” Chen said. “We want them to address the concerns of thousands of students who have signed our petition and spoken with us.

From the switch to remote education this semester, having to leave campus suddenly and the continued bleak economic forecast, “a lot of students are really struggling,” she said.