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US colleges face their next big challenge: furious parents

Parents at Ivy League universities beset by Gaza protests are demanding refunds and arranging transfers

By Josie Ensor | May 03 2024, 9.35 pm BST

Parents of students at Columbia and other Ivy League colleges are demanding refunds on tuition and looking to transfer to other schools as Gaza protests continue on campuses.
The universities have locked down campuses, suspended in-person classes and threatened to pare down graduation ceremonies, leaving families questioning the value — and considerable price tag — of higher education.

The parents of pupils, including one British first-year at Columbia, are angry at the school’s handling of the unrest and are even hiring outside consultants to help them get their money back.

Christopher Rim, founder and chief executive of Command Education, a company that helps students complete applications for competitive colleges, said he had received calls from more than two dozen parents with children at Columbia University and the University of California, Los Angeles.

He told The Times that some wanted full or partial refunds from the colleges, though he believes that the chances that they will reimburse tuition fees — which can run to $90,000 a year — are “slim-to-none”.

“I’ve had so many parents emailing, calling, asking me what they can do,” Rim said. “There’s been protests, encampments and physical violence that has interrupted their education and they’re not happy. Fees at these sorts of schools are phenomenally high; parents want to feel like they are getting what they pay for and right now they don’t.”

Columbia saw more than two weeks of demonstrations which culminated on Monday in the takeover of a hall on campus by pro-Palestinian protesters. Police in riot shields forcibly removed the demonstrators in ugly scenes that prompted criticism. College administrators have struggled to find the best response, caught between the need to respect the right to free speech and the imperative of containing inflammatory and sometimes violently antisemitic calls by protesters.
New York city officials have blamed “outside agitators”, releasing figures on Friday which showed that nearly a third — 32 out of 112 — of the people arrested in Monday’s raid on Columbia were not enrolled students.

The parents of a British student at Columbia told Rim they were scared for their son’s safety and felt that the New York university had failed to do enough to protect students on campus. “It’s the first time he’s even been out of the country, he’s barely finished his first year,” said Rim. “[The parents] are back in the UK very concerned, they don’t trust that the college is handling it.”

He said they were in the process of transferring their son to another US college, or “perhaps even an international one” which is less likely to be paralysed by protest. The parent of one student graduating from the University of Southern California — which has cancelled its large main-stage commencement ceremony following violent clashes between pro-Israel and pro-Palestinian protesters — said she was disappointed. “There will be no celebration at the university where we paid an exorbitant amount of tuition for the past four years,” Lana Shami said. “It’s a huge letdown.”

Rim said another fear among parents was the future employment prospects of students attending the schools with the greatest disruption. “They have heard about companies refusing to hire students from these universities. These employers are saying the degrees are worthless because of what they are teaching there,” he said. He pointed to a post on social media made by Tom McClellan, editor of The McClellan Market Report, who said that he would no longer be hiring “any recent graduate of Columbia, because that school is so tainted”.

“I cannot have faith that any former Columbia student could have achieved sufficient academic success,” he tweeted, “especially in light of the overwhelming recent evidence that the academic requirements there are so lax such that students have time to set up protests on the quad instead of studying.”

Warren Kinsella, who founded Daisy Consulting Group, said: “At the firm I founded 18 years ago, and in the war rooms I’ve run for the past 31 years, I’ve employed hundreds of young people. I’ll never again hire one from Columbia.”

However, Andrew Dudum, chief executive of the tele-medicine startup Hims & Hers, went on social media to say, that the conviction of protesters made them uniquely hireable. “Moral courage > College degree,” he posted on X, where he received a backlash. “If you’re currently protesting against the genocide of the Palestinian people and for your university’s divestment from Israel, keep going. It’s working. There are plenty of companies and CEOs eager to hire you, regardless of university discipline.”

The Times

Originally published on The Times on May 03 2024

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