Column: Lucy Parks and the Movement Against Student Debt, Pt. I

By Emma Scoble

Editor’s Note: This investigative piece on Lucy Parks, her associates in SLAM, and their fight against NYU student debt was initially inspired by our “Money” theme but remains relevant as the conditions surrounding Lucy Parks’ exit from NYU remain the same. 

On a crisp, autumn evening, the sun was still shining in a cloudless sky as I buzzed myself into a brownstone apartment building, located in the Bedford neighborhood of Brooklyn. Inside, I am welcomed into a kitchen filled by the aroma of tandoori spices.  “She’s almost here,” Cayden, an NYU Senior, tells me. By “she,” Cayden is referring to Lucy Parks, the would-be Gallatin junior who dropped out of NYU in September and subsequently released an open letter to President John Sexton on the internet about her financial struggle and criticisms of student debt and financial aid at NYU. In the three weeks since the letter was released on September 10th, Lucy’s letter went viral and garnered national media attention. The letter has since been seen by over 98,000 viewers and news organizations such as the Huffington Post and Yahoo! Media have given her a platform to tell her story. The buzzer by the door rings, and in walks Lucy herself, just as Cayden pulls a sizzling tray of tandoori chicken from the oven.

Lucy Parks in action. (Photo courtesy of Lucy Parks)

Lucy Parks at a protest in Washington Square Park. (Photo courtesy of Lucy Parks)

Tonight, I have come to dinner for a round-table discussion about student debt with roommates Cayden, Lucy, and Blake (whose real name has been withdrawn due to their on-campus employment), who are all active and vocal members of the Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM). SLAM is a student organization that aims to combat student debt, both at NYU and across the nation, as well as better the conditions of students currently struggling financially. The purpose of my visit is not to rehash the details of Lucy’s well-known story, nor is it to bemoan the financial struggles of simultaneously dealing with NYU tuition and the cost of living in the city, which all NYU students are already quite aware of. As 51% of New York University students are currently receiving financial aid (as reported by the 2015 U.S. News Report on Colleges) and an average of only 59% of total need is met, a high number of students have firsthand experience with the difficulty and realities of monetary burden and debt. Tonight, I hope to discuss their perspective on real solutions.

As SLAM is the principle student group on the Square that aims to alleviate the current situation, I decided to ask them about their goals and what they see as the solutions to facilitate change. First and foremost, SLAM recognizes that student debt is a reality for the majority of universities across the United States, and we are not unique in our situation.

“We’re organizing at NYU as NYU students but believe in and, as much as we can, support similar efforts of students at other universities… We believe that students around the country need to organize…the goal of the work we do is to work connected with students at other universities. ” said Cayden.  In fact, he continued, “We’re putting together a research report in conjunction with some Columbia students right now about expansion at both [our schools] that is being prioritized over the needs of the community, mainly affordability.” Lucy explained that SLAM is planning to work with Cooper Union in the future because of the proximity of our two campuses and the commonality of issues. Lucy also said that SLAM is collaborating with local organizations that fight debt like Strike Debt, which works with individuals facing student debt after graduating college. “We want to have a holistic approach to the whole situation.” Lucy stated.

The Student Labor Action Movement. (Courtesy of Lucy Parks)

The Student Labor Action Movement. (Photo courtesy of Lucy Parks)

However, here at NYU, SLAM’s specific goals fall under the overarching aim that the administration should prioritize the needs of students above all else. Their major goals are a $15 an hour living wage for students working on campus, a 25% increase in financial aid, and a ten-year tuition freeze. The purpose of the $15 dollar an hour living wage is to give NYU students working NYU jobs more of an income to be able to support themselves and be able to pay off their student debt. The other two demands, Cayden said, are a part of a policy change that they wish to see the administration and Board of Trustees adopt, of “prioritizing students by reducing their financial burden.” He explained, “In concrete terms…we want a 10 year tuition freeze so the rate of inflation can catch up with tuition because in the past few years tuition has been rising, sometimes twice as fast as the rate of inflation.”

As for the 25 percent increase, the SLAM members said that they found a financial statement from an NYU document called the “University Space Priorities Working Group: Final Report,” that offered an analysis and recommendations in March of 2014 about space available on campus and the financial feasibility of renovating or creating additions to campus. Under a subsection titled, “NYU’s Current and Future Financial Status”, SLAM found an item that read “1. NYU has been able to achieve annual operating surpluses (margins) over the past 10 years; the actual annual operating surplus has exceeded the planned/ budgeted surpluses by an average of approximately $120 million annually.” SLAM members interpreted that statement to mean that the annual $120 million is most likely used for emergencies, such as natural disasters like Hurricane Sandy. “But,” said Cayden, “if no emergencies happen, that money is rolled over into the 2031 plan.” So, SLAM believes that this money should instead be put into raising the amount of financial aid given.

Blake said that they would also like to see a “cap on administrative bloat” as well as a “total stop to 2031” because those two areas of policy are what SLAM sees as key examples of how the money to increase financial aid exists, but is wrongly going elsewhere. Though SLAM is aware of NYU’s vocal efforts in the “Momentum Campaign” to raise funding in order to increase student financial aid, SLAM members said that the money being raised will not adequately cover the financial need of the student body, and ultimately find it hard to believe that the administration’s number one priority is to increase financial aid while still moving forward with the controversial 2031 plan.

When it came to discussing the ten-year tuition freeze, I stopped to question the SLAM members about how realistic their demands are, as a tuition freeze has never been enacted at any major American university. They iterated that it was an “idealized list” and Cayden said that, “We work from a frame work that…anything is winnable if you build enough power. We are well aware that we are many, many semesters away from building the power we need to win this.” Blake added, “If we win this at our university, it will set precedent. Someone has to be first.”

Part 2 of this piece is now available.

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