Student Power: Can Philly College Students Follow the Examples of Quebec and the UK?

Photo of Quebec’s student strike in May 2012 by David Vilder, Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic

By: James Lyuh

Many undergraduate students at the University of Pennsylvania were shocked, over the summer, to find that the Student Financial Services office was not granting financial aid to those who had chosen to take a fifth year.

This information did not come from an official email. Rather, it came as a surprise, when some students opened their financial aid package and discovered tens of thousands of dollars in loans where they expected to see scholarships or grant money. The rest received the news through social media.

With only months before the term began, students frantically sought answers. SFS claims that this has been a long-standing policy. However, students report that they had received written confirmation that financial aid would be extended to the fifth year. One anonymous Penn student said, “SFS confirmed to me in writing, back in March 2014, that I would be able to receive aid for this year, and while there could be loans, they would only be a ‘few thousand dollars.’ … Instead, my financial aid package currently consists entirely of loans.”

Students decide to take an extra year for a wide variety of reasons, such as mental health, financially supporting their family, or to pursue a dual-degree program. Students only made these decisions after consulting with SFS, sometimes years in advance. In return, SFS attempted to renege on its promise, potentially devastating the futures of its undergraduates with the choice of either crippling debt, or an incomplete degree: “This devastating debt is not an option. At this point, I am looking at not being able to complete my undergraduate degree, let alone my masters.”

Rather than clearly announcing this change in policy,  SFS believed that by secretly reneging on its promise, affected students would not be in a position to resist the change. This was an attempted cover-up of administrative neglect, done at the expense of students.

Despite the underhanded tactics of the administration, students have offered a mild set of demands: those entering into a 5th year in 2018 must be granted an exception to this policy due to miscommunication by SFS. They are not asking UPenn to change the policy; they are only asking that the university give those who had planned their lives around misinformation a pass and apply the new policy to those who have now been properly informed.

The University should eagerly accept such light demands. However, students have every right to demand more. The denial of financial aid for those who want to take a single extra year is nothing less than the university punishing those who grapple with mental health, are less wealthy, or find themselves dealing with unfortunate circumstances, such as a sudden family issue. It reinforces the divide between those who have enough to pay off tens of thousands in loans, and those who simply cannot afford to do so. It stigmatizes those who cannot complete a degree in four-years for reasons outside their control. It makes certain degrees accessible largely to those with the means to pursue a fifth-year with little financial aid.

However, the weakness of the US student movement means that students need to be pragmatic in the worst way — making the choices they must to move on with their lives. In other countries, this is not entirely the case. In 2010, in the U.K., the National Union of Students (NUS) helped coordinate a series of protests against tuition increases. Over two months, the NUS  occupied dozens of universities and the Conservative Party’s London HQ, and brought hundreds of thousands of people out to march in the streets. In Quebec, in 2012, a similar threat of tuition increases led the Association pour une Solidarité Syndicale Étudiante (ASSÉ) to launch months of protests that mobilized hundreds of thousands in the streets. The capacity of these student unions to launch massive demonstrations presents a constant credible threat to the administration and the State: they must respect the democratic rights of students.

Simply put, students have a right to determine the conditions under which they live. Students live — in the full sense of the word — for four years on campus. Yet, students are not given any say in how their campus is governed. Students do not have a monopoly on this right — staff and faculty have this right as well — but they have some legitimate claim, in so far as their own lives are concerned.

If students had democratic rights, it is hard to imagine that a situation like the SFS debacle could have occurred. If students had power, it is hard to imagine that they would have to swallow the bitter pill of having to hand over an entire year of financial aid to protect the futures of incoming fifth-year undergraduates. At times, it is obvious that the goals of the administration and the Board of Trustees are the same as those of students. It is equally obvious that at times they are in opposition. And, in such a situation, who can students turn to but themselves?

. . .

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