Pitchin' a Tent

April 20, 2006

The Web counter just keeps on ticking, reminiscent of the national debt clock near Times Square. But instead of tracking the amount of money owed by the government, a group of students have used their clock to highlight how much the war in Iraq has cost New Jersey. As of Thursday morning, the tally stood at over $12.1 billion. The counter highlights that almost 588,000 students could have been provided four-year scholarships at public universities in the state for that amount of money.

The sentiments behind the counter aren’t necessarily anti-war, say organizers of a nationwide program called Tent State University, which got its start at Rutgers (explaining the New Jersey theme). The real effort is to raise awareness of the financial toll facing many public university students and their families in today’s political and economic environment.

Campus activists from across the country -- from Rutgers to the University of Massachusetts at Amherst to the University of Michigan -- are coalescing around that message over the next couple of weeks, dotting campuses with tents that are symbolic of the sentiment that “public higher education is being displaced by privatization,” according to one of the campaign's organizer, Andrey Federov, a sophomore at Rutgers.

“A lot of campus protests tend to center on international affairs or low-wage work issues -- important causes, yes,” says Federov. “But we, as students, are also facing a lot of obstacles and sometimes that’s put on a back burner. “Many [of us] are facing steep tuition hikes and, in many cases, less financial aid support.”

In New Jersey, Federov’s home state, the state government has proposed providing $169 million less to higher education in the 2007 fiscal year than it gave in 2006. Hundreds of students on campus have pitched several tents and joined in discussions and rallies to talk about this and other relevant facts with each other, while hoping that politicians and administrators pay attention.

At the Rutgers campus, where the movement took root in 2003, students say that President Richard L. McCormick and other administrators have been supportive. In a letter to the campus on Wednesday, McCormick thanked students who are organizing in support of public education funding. “The students who are participating in the rally realize the need to speak up for their concerns, and I support their efforts,” he wrote. “Such initiative and leadership is further reason to take immense pride in our students and to advocate for a strong, well-supported state university.”

Students across the nation have already spent lots of energy this year focusing of the situation in Darfur, low-wage workers, and sweatshop labor issues, but Tent State devotees say there are much more personal pressing issues facing today’s students.

Mishy Leiblum, a senior majoring in Latin American studies at UMass Amherst, says that she personally had to enroll at the university part-time at first because the tuition was too much for her family to handle. Now that she’s a senior and attending full-time, she says, the financial burdens continue to be a challenge. She’s moved home to save on room and board and her mom has taken on a second job so that Leiblum will not be overburdened with loan debt upon graduation. 

“These are individual coping mechanisms, and not every family is able to make it,” says Leiblum. “Already so many students think they can’t attend college because financial aid dollars aren’t available. At what point are the students who are overstretched now not going to be able to attend?” Student fees have doubled at the university over the past five years, she says.

The university's chancellor, John V. Lombardi, has argued that there is a "public dependent" mentality in Massachusetts, and that students shouldn’t have the expectation that the state will be there to provide support. The hundreds of students who have participated in UMass Tent State rallies have different ideas, however.

“This is about spending priorities,” says Leiblum. “We should be building coalitions to shift the burden to politicians.”

“Students have the power to make change,” reflects Marlowe Coolican, a senior at the University of Michigan who has helped organize Tent State activities on her campus. “We’re paying a lot of money to attend school and we should have a say in how the money is being spent.” Tuition at public universities in her state has increased by 12.3 percent this year.

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