Let Columbia Students Take Leaves of Absence and End the Student Contribution

Columbia University Administrators

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COLUMBIA COLLEGE & ENGINEERING

PETITION FOR EQUITABLE UNDERGRADUATE POLICIES DURING COVID-19


PLEASE JOIN OUR EMAIL CAMPAIGN TO DEMAND COLUMBIA ADMINISTRATORS CHANGE THEIR POLICIES IN LIGHT OF ALL CLASSES BEING SHIFTED ONLINE. https://actionnetwork.org/letters/letters-columbia-leave/


President Bollinger has recently announced that all fall classes will be held online.

As we experienced last semester, this compromises all students’ quality of learning and is fundamentally inequitable. While students in the most extreme circumstances (insufficient technology access; financial, food, or housing insecurity; unsafe or unhealthy living conditions) who received on-campus housing may still return, being in NYC puts them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Students living in other timezones will be disadvantaged by decreased engagement in asynchronous learning modules. Moreover, all students are experiencing a vastly diminished educational and college experience by shifting online—a terrible loss that President Bollinger explicitly lamented in his message.

Therefore, students should be allowed to take leaves of absence, to prioritize and act according to their own needs. While Columbia University does allow students to take leaves of absence, there are often penalties such as loss of guaranteed housing, reduced financial aid, loss of student health insurance, etc. that prevent many students from taking them. To ensure that Columbia University has equitable policies that allow students to maximize their education, we make the following demands:


1. Students should be allowed to take a leave of absence for one semester or year if they face financial, personal, or logistical uncertainties or medical risks, regardless of academic standing and without penalties.

  • Current Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences policies only permit students to take leaves of absence if they are in good academic standing. The SEAS leave of absence policy only allows one-year leaves and requires students to apply to return after a one-semester leave. Students should be allowed to take a semester or year-long leave of absence regardless of academic standing and without penalties. We ask for semester-long leave eligibility for maximum flexibility. Many students have diminished family and personal incomes; housing, food, and financial insecurity; unsafe or unhealthy living conditions; poor technology access; and face circumstances that make studying virtually impossible.
  • Many students depend upon work-study and on-campus employment during the school year to pay for living expenses. Student work opportunities for the fall are gone. Asking students in such precarious situations to study online is dangerously inequitable.
  • International students face increased Visa acquisition and travel difficulties due to global travel bans and the new ICE restriction on international students taking online classes. Many students are in different time zones. This puts them at a critical disadvantage if there is any synchronous instruction or testing set to the EST timezone, while asynchronous learning modules will have decreased student engagement. Asking students barred from entry to the United States to take online classes (assuming they have adequate technology access) is inequitable.

2. Taking a leave of absence should not have any deleterious effects on students’ access to Columbia Student Health Insurance, guaranteed housing, or financial aid.

  • The students who most need to take a leave of absence due to the challenges of COVID-19 are the ones who depend the most on financial aid, guaranteed housing, Columbia Student Health Insurance, and scholarships contingent upon satisfactory academic performance in order to attend Columbia. Columbia University should ensure these students can take time off without negatively affecting them when classes resume on-campus.
  • Particularly because classes have now shifted entirely online and some students may attempt them to see how they fare, students who enter a leave of absence after the CC pass/D/fail deadline or the SEAS drop deadline should not have the semester appear on their academic record, nor should it count toward the eight-semester graduation limit.
  • Students must retain their right to Columbia Student Health Insurance for both the duration of their leave and the remainder of their studies.
  • Students should continue to receive guaranteed housing upon returning from their leave of absence. Their position in the housing lottery should correspond to their class year based upon their post-leave anticipated graduation date. (For example, if a rising sophomore who is part of the Class of 2023 takes a year-long leave of absence, when they return in Fall 2021 they should have the same housing lottery process as a student who normally matriculated into the Class of 2024.)
  • The Columbia Financial Aid and Educational Financing office should prepare its officers and create materials to help students adjust their educational finances for a leave of absence.

3. Waive the student contribution for the spring and all future semesters.

  • Most students’ summer internships and jobs have been cancelled due to COVID-19. Many families are experiencing financial hardship due to lost employment, rising costs of living, and other struggles. We deeply appreciate that Columbia has waived fall semester work expectations because students will not have on-campus employment opportunities, but we maintain that this should be extended to the spring and all future semesters.
  • Asking students to still pay a student contribution during the spring semester or at any point during this pandemic is unfeasible, dangerous, and most detrimental to first-generation, low-income, and already marginalized students. Moreover, the economic fallout and downward pressure on students' earnings from COVID-19 will last far beyond the 2020-2021 school year. The student contribution has historically and systemically made Columbia less accessible to low-income and marginalized students; the time for its removal is long overdue.

While this petition is geared toward changing Columbia College and School of Engineering policies, we welcome and appreciate solidarity from Barnard College, the School of General Studies, and all other supporters. We also stand in solidarity with the Columbia People’s Coronavirus Response petition, the Graduate Workers of Columbia, and Columbia QuestBridge, who have all endorsed this petition. We are deeply grateful for their support and assistance.

To: Columbia University Administrators
From: [Your Name]

Dear President Bollinger, Provost Katznelson, Vice President Goldberg, Dean Valentini, Dean Boyce, and other deans, vice presidents, and directors of Columbia University,

We, the undersigned Columbia students, thank you and the Columbia administration for its work in planning the 2020-2021 school year during the COVID-19 pandemic. We recently received notice that all classes have been shifted online for the fall semester. In light of increasing cases and potential adverse effects upon the Morningside Heights community, we understand why this decision was necessary and appreciate the administration's cautious approach.

However, we maintain that online classes are fundamentally inequitable. While students in the most extreme circumstances (insufficient technology access; financial, food, or housing insecurity; unsafe or unhealthy living conditions) who received on-campus housing may still return, being in NYC puts them at greater risk of contracting COVID-19. Students living in other timezones will still be disadvantaged by decreased engagement in asynchronous learning modules. Moreover, all students are experiencing a vastly diminished educational and college experience by shifting online—a terrible loss that President Bollinger explicitly lamented in his email.

Therefore, we continue to ask that students be allowed to take leaves of absence without penalties, to prioritize and act according to their own needs.

While Columbia University does allow students to take leaves of absence, there are often penalties such as loss of guaranteed housing, reduced financial aid, loss of student health insurance, etc. that prevent many students from taking them. To ensure that Columbia University has equitable policies that allow students to maximize their education, we make the following demands:

1. Allow students to take a leave of absence for one semester or year if they face financial, personal, or logistical uncertainties or medical risks, regardless of academic standing and without penalties.

Current Columbia College and School of Engineering and Applied Sciences policies only permit students to take leaves of absence if they are in good academic standing. The SEAS leave of absence policy only allows one-year leaves and requires students to apply to return after a one-semester leave. Students should be allowed to take a semester or year-long leave of absence regardless of academic standing and without penalties. We ask for semester-long leave eligibility for maximum flexibility. Many students have diminished family and personal incomes; housing, food, and financial insecurity; unsafe or unhealthy living conditions; poor technology access; and face circumstances that make studying virtually impossible.

Many students depend upon work-study and on-campus employment during the school year to pay for living expenses. Student work opportunities for the fall are gone. Asking students in such precarious situations to study online is dangerously inequitable.

International students face increased Visa acquisition and travel difficulties due to global travel bans and the new ICE restriction on international students taking online classes. Many students are in different time zones. This puts them at a critical disadvantage if there is any synchronous instruction or testing set to the EST timezone, while asynchronous learning modules will have decreased student engagement. Asking students barred from entry to the United States to take online classes (assuming they have adequate technology access) is inequitable.

2. Taking a leave of absence should not have any deleterious effects on students’ access to Columbia Student Health Insurance, guaranteed housing, or financial aid.

The students who most need to take a leave of absence due to the challenges of COVID-19 are the ones who depend the most on financial aid, guaranteed housing, Columbia Student Health Insurance, and scholarships contingent upon satisfactory academic performance in order to attend Columbia. Columbia University should ensure these students can take time off without negatively affecting them when classes resume on-campus.

Academic transcripts should be clearly annotated with COVID-19 as the reason for why students are taking a leave of absence. Particularly because classes have now shifted entirely online and some students may attempt them to see how they fare, students who enter a leave of absence after the CC pass/D/fail deadline or the SEAS drop deadline should not have the semester appear on their academic record, nor should it count toward the eight-semester graduation limit.

Students must retain their right to Columbia Student Health Insurance for both the duration of their leave and the remainder of their studies.

Students should continue to receive guaranteed housing upon returning from their leave of absence. Their position in the housing lottery should correspond to their class year based upon their post-leave anticipated graduation date. (For example, if a rising sophomore who is part of the Class of 2023 takes a year-long leave of absence, when they return in Fall 2021 they should have the same housing lottery process as a student who normally matriculated into the Class of 2024.)

The Columbia Financial Aid and Educational Financing office should prepare its officers and create materials to help students adjust their educational finances for a leave of absence.

3. Waive the student contribution for the spring and all future semesters.

Most students’ summer internships and jobs have been cancelled due to COVID-19. Many families are experiencing financial hardship due to lost employment, rising costs of living, and other struggles. We deeply appreciate that Columbia has waived fall semester work expectations because students will not have on-campus employment opportunities, but we maintain that this should be extended to the spring semester and all future semesters.

Asking students to still pay a student contribution during the spring semester or at any point during this pandemic is unfeasible, dangerous, and most detrimental to first-generation, low-income, and already marginalized students. Moreover, the economic fallout and downward pressure on students' earnings from COVID-19 will last beyond the 2020-2021 school year. The student contribution has historically and systemically made Columbia less accessible to low-income and marginalized students; the time for its removal is long overdue.

Thank you again for your consideration, work, and leadership in these difficult times. We truly appreciate the policy changes Columbia has adopted, including protecting on-campus housing for students who were approved for the full year and waiving the fall semester student contribution. We hope you will adopt the policies listed above to ensure Columbia is an equitable, accessible institution for all students.

Sincerely,

Columbia Students for Equitable Undergraduate Policies