Students Fume at Tuition Proposal

Erica Taybron, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, protests with others criticizing a plan that would almost double tuition for city residents.
Erica Taybron, a student at the University of the District of Columbia, protests with others criticizing a plan that would almost double tuition for city residents. (By Gerald Martineau -- The Washington Post)
  Enlarge Photo     Buy Photo
By Susan Kinzie
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, February 12, 2009

About 1,000 people filled an auditorium at the University of the District of Columbia yesterday to vent their anger at a proposal that would nearly double tuition at the city's only public college.

UDC students, who come from all over the world as well as D.C. neighborhoods, told trustees repeatedly that UDC is the place where people go when they need an education and can't afford any other school.

UDC student leader William Kellibrew IV received a thunderous standing ovation at the meeting of a trustees committee when he demanded that President Allen Sessoms resign, and students later began signing a petition.

The committee met to discuss Sessoms's recommendation to raise tuition for D.C. residents from about $3,800 to $7,000 a year for four-year students. Four-year students from outside the region would pay $14,000 a year.

At a student rally before the meeting, Kellibrew said: "If you're going to double the tuition, how about doubling our facilities? If you're going to double our tuition, how about upgrading books in our library?"

UDC leaders have said they are planning to split the school, which has had financial and morale problems, into a community college open to all and a four-year university with admissions standards. Students who attend the community college, which would be on a separate campus, would pay about $3,000 a year.

UDC trustees approved the plan in concept last month. The university has not found a site for the community college. The interim academic senate is considering admissions standards and plans to send them to the trustees this semester.

The full board will consider the tuition increase next week.

Sessoms's agenda also includes creating doctoral programs, seeking financial autonomy from the city, building a school of public health and offering a buyout to older faculty members to attract younger professors.

Of the tuition increase, Sessoms said, "If you're getting something at very low cost and someone says you have to pay full market value, I wouldn't like it, either."

Sessoms predicted that financial aid would cover most of the additional costs of attending the four-year university, saying that many students have not been receiving as much aid as they are entitled to. The school will work to help people find information and pursue grants, he said, and will spend an additional $4 million on financial aid. More than half of the school's revenue this year came from tuition and fees.

After the meeting, trustees Chairman James Dyke said: "It's clear that we're going to have to have a tuition increase. We also have to make sure we're not increasing the burden on students."

Sessoms's proposal met resistance from city leaders yesterday. "Even with financial assistance," D.C. Council member Muriel Bowser (D-Ward 4) wrote in a letter to the UDC board, "our residents will now be hard pressed to go to school."

Mayor Adrian M. Fenty (D), who had sought to stop Sessoms's appointment as president last summer so the search could be widened, said in a statement that "as the university leadership moves forward on important reforms, it's imperative that they maintain UDC's rich history of inclusiveness toward students of all backgrounds."

But many students said they were furious about the prospect of rapidly implementing such fundamental changes. Some slept overnight in tents on the UDC plaza and boycotted classes yesterday, saying that tuition increases are too drastic, especially at a school meant to provide an affordable education for all and at a time when so many have less to spend.

All afternoon, the sound of students chanting, "No increase! No increase!" echoed throughout the campus as the crowd moved from one building to another, pointing out run-down conditions.

At the meeting, speakers argued, pleaded, sneered, screamed, laughed and cried. They told about slipping on broken steps and walking up nonfunctioning escalators at a campus that has never had enough money for repairs. They described staying up late studying after their children fell asleep and waking up early to go to full-time jobs. They told of parents who saved for decades to send them to the United States for an education and how they didn't see how they could afford to stay.

"I don't think that this plan was thought through at all," said Elissa Selmore, a pre-med senior who said she skipped an exam to attend the meeting. Selmore said she transferred to UDC from Howard because she couldn't afford tuition there. Now, with a 1-year-old daughter and a more-than-full-time course load, she said she is afraid she might have to take a job to pay for a tuition increase.

"I know that every college has tuition increases," she said, "just not by this drastic amount. It's not realistic during these times. People can't afford it."

After almost four emotional hours, the meeting ended quietly. Sessoms thanked students for their opinions.

"We have a pretty good idea of the stress you're under," he said. "We also have an idea of the stress the university is under, and it's significant. We have to solve both problems at one time."

Staff writer David Nakamura contributed to this report.

© 2009 The Washington Post Company