College students block Michigan Avenue to demand free tuition in higher education

Students stage a Die-In, an act of non-violent protest in which demonstrators pretend to be dead, to fight for free tuition in the streets of downtown Chicago on Monday, Oct. 24. (Internet Photo)

Approximately 100 students, many of them chained together, shut down a portion of Michigan Avenue on Oct. 24 to demand free tuition in Illinois higher education.

Eight students were arrested after gathering together to protest the cuts in funding to many Illinois universities and demonstrate their desire for free tuition. Dressing in navy blue caps and gowns, many of the protesting students chanted, “Education’s for the masses, not just for the ruling classes!” and “Say it ’til they got it, students over profit!”

UChicago Junior Jessica Law, a student organizer for the gathering, was one of the eight students arrested for sitting on the intersection in front of the Art Institute of Chicago and blocking traffic.

“Student power is definitely a force to be reckoned with,” said Law in an email interview. “And even people who aren’t students are standing behind us and fighting alongside us too.”

Freshman Ivy Li, a student from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, was on her way to class when the protesters stopped traffic.

“It was quite peaceful for the people who were sitting [in] the middle of the road,” said Li. “The people who were supporting on the sidewalks were shouting. All the students sitting [in] the middle of the road got arrested.”

Amidst the backlash towards what is perceived as an expensive push for free public higher education, Law stands firmly to address a solution.

“From the practical standpoint: people point to how expensive it would be to make public higher ed free, but there are many ways of raising ‘progressive’ revenue to pay for this, e.g. a progressive income tax to make the super-wealthy pay their fair share.”

Law agrees that expensive college tuition serves as yet another hindrance towards student graduation rates in Illinois.

“When students have to worry about paying for college (or food, rent, etc.), they can’t focus on being a student,” she added. “Moreover, students may have to drop out or take semesters off because they can’t afford it, hurting their academic success and eventually graduation.”

For many students, community college serves as a stepping stone towards transferring to a four year college by earning credits at a considerably lower price.

According to Senior Director of Communications and External Relations Desiree Chen, “944 transfer students are currently enrolled in traditional undergraduate programs at Elmhurst College, and nearly all of them (more than two-thirds) transferred here from community college.”

Free community college tuition could essentially broaden opportunities for many students wishing to pursue a four year degree at colleges such as EC.

EC Senior Chris Dominguez believes that free community college will open up more opportunities for many students in Illinois. However, she believes that public universities tuition costs should be considerably lowered.

“For community colleges I think yes the education there should be free because that alone can generate a lot of positive outcomes such as trade school options or associate degree options. As far as [higher] education goes I don’t think it should be free, but it should be lowered to a reasonable cost”.

Junior Noelle Voigt agrees and mentions the burdens of student debt for those who have graduated.

“I think it should be free or reduced significantly so that it is affordable to obtain without burying students in loans and debt,” she said. “Often times the debt students obtain is more than their starting salary, which I find to be ridiculous because it will leave them in debt for a majority of their life just to better themselves.”

Voigt adds that other countries have successfully implemented free public higher education.

“It would also work as can be seen in other countries, some even pay college students a living allowance so that they can strictly focus on school and gaining an education,” she said. “So if they can do it we can as well.”

EC sophomore Jacob Rosada disagreed with the notion that college tuition should be free, stating that making tuition free would eliminate the financial motivation to remain in school.

“Free college would cause a graduation rate because you would not be wasting your money by dropping out,” he

said. “I’m not saying the prices aren’t ridiculously high, but if it was free then the dropout rate would be at least double.”

Despite the opposition, Law remains positive that the movement has been successful in generating support.

“From my standpoint as a student organizer there is a huge, growing student movement in Chicago, in Illinois and nationally. Students are getting fired up about the issues that affect them and are demand- ing change (and winning too),” Law said.

“I think fighting for free public higher ed is not only incredibly worthwhile and necessary, but also very possible,” she added

“I am confident that we can win this fight.”