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American Students Need to Copy Canada's Tuition Protests

Quebec's $325 per year college tuition increase seems reasonable, so why are students so bent out of shape? Here's why they're smart to protest.

In the past four months, the Canadian province of Quebec has become a hotbed of Occupy Wall Street-style protests—marches with hundreds of thousands of protesters, and battles with tear gas throwing, pepper-spraying police. And it all started over proposed tuition increases at Quebec's public universities.

Indeed the Quebec Spring first blossomed in February when the government proposed hiking tuition from $2,168 to $3,793 over the next five years. Thousands of students went on strike and the government, led by Premier Jean Charest, decided to play hardball and crack down with the now-infamous Bill 78, a law that limits protest rights.

Since then the protests and student boycotts have only grown. Nearly 200,000 students across the province have gone on strike. And the situation has revealed deeper frustrations with the government’s willingness to bail out businesses but not help the average student—or citizen. On May 22nd nearly 400,000 people—a full quarter of Montreal's residents—participated in a protest march.

Yep, Canadian students are outraged because each will have to pay $325 more per year, for a grand total of $1,625 for five years of higher education. Meanwhile, in the United States we don’t bat an eye over that kind of tuition jump. In-state students attending the University of Michigan saw their tuition rise to $12,590 for 2011-12 school year—$753 higher than the year before. We certainly didn’t see 27,000 undergraduates marching through Ann Arbor in protest.

And the tuition increases that Michigan students have borne are nothing compared to the 300 percent increase California’s college students have been slapped with over the past decade. In the past three years alone, tuition at the University of California at Berkeley, the world’s best public university, has ballooned from $8,353 in 2009-10 to $12,834 in 2011-12 for in-state students. That means a freshman that started in 2009 was forced to plunk down $4,481 more for her junior year—nearly three times the increase Canadian students are protesting. And Berkeley undergrads can expect to pay 5 to 10 percent more next school year.

Sure, California’s students have staged protest marches on freeways, sit-ins on campus, and, most recently, a march on the state capitol, Sacramento. They’ve also proposed long-term solutions like FixUC, a repayment plan model to fund students' education, and backed tax increase ballot measures. But to keep a student protest going consistently for four months with such a high level of participation is unheard of in the 21st century United States.

Are the Canadian students are just entitled brats who want a free ride at the taxpayers expense? After all, most California’s students would be thrilled with a measley $325 increase per year. No, they just haven’t forgotten that ensuring college is affordable for all students is beneficial to the entire society. And, we can't forget that a generation ago tuition at the University of California was free for all in-state residents. The creation of a highly educated population in the state spurred California’s ascent to being the eighth largest economy in the world—would we even have Silicon Valley if not for the strength of California’s public universities?

American students have long been like frogs in a pot that's slowly heating—tuition costs rise gradually, and before you know it students are paying an unsustainable amount. Schools know they don’t have to listen because, ultimately, students want to get their degrees. Once they’re enrolled in a school, most aren’t going to quit because of the increases—if they do they’ll owe thousands in loans. So students have been trained to suck it up and just keep borrowing. No wonder America's total student loan debt now tops credit card debt.

In contrast, the Canadian students are refusing to let the government turn up the heat—they know that even small increases are consequential when they have to be paid back with interest. They've even rejected the government's proposed $35 tuition discount from the original plan. It remains to be seen whether the protest will endure the summer months when school's out, but their example is inspiring. What will take for American students to copy their Canadian cousins and stand up en masse against the rising cost of higher education?

Photo via (cc) Flickr user GothCandy

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