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From conflict to community at college

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Five Antioch students were allowed to continue taking summer classes three days into the session after an agreement was worked out last Thursday between students and administrators over overdue room and board fees. The action, after intense college community dialogue, brought to resolution the first instance of a significant student protest at the revived college.

The agreement followed a late-night meeting attended by 69 of the 96 students on campus, who rallied behind a handful of students burdened with mounting debts from fees — about $8,800 per term before need-based discounts.

At issue was a deadline imposed by the college in June where students who had outstanding balances and hadn’t agreed to a plan to repay within six months would be barred from taking summer classes, which began July 9. That deadline to have a repayment plan was later extended to July 12, allowing all students to attend summer classes for at least the first week.

Ahead of the agreement, Antioch President Mark Roosevelt flew back early from a family vacation in Nantucket, arriving at 4 a.m. Thursday morning to spend much of the day discussing the matter with students.

The agreement — drawn up by a small group of students working overnight on Tuesday — extends the deadline to arrange payment to the end of the term in September, creates a financial task force of students, faculty and staff and proposes other ways to promote financial literacy and improve the financial situation of students.

Before it went to administrators, the student proposal was supported by the campus governing body Community Council, or ComCil. To ComCil President and second-year student Elijah Blanton, it was an intense week, but the outcome was seen as a positive example of students, faculty and administrators working together to solve a problem.

“I’m proud to be an Antiochian today,” Blanton said after the student plan, which he helped to draft, was approved. “It’s one of the problems created in Antioch’s beautiful rebirth and we’re coming together as a community to solve it.”

Solutions vary

According to Blanton, solutions for financially-strapped students may include on-campus jobs and higher-paying co-op positions. The college could partner with a private bank to extend loans. And financial literacy among students could be improved. In addition to a teach-in held last weekend on financial issues, there will be a unit on student debt and financial literacy during the global seminar on education open to all students this summer.

The recent move by the finance department to more urgently collect unpaid fees stemmed from a desire to not let student debt build up and to make sure that students are annually filing federal aid forms, Roosevelt said.

“Any college needs to have a process to obtain dollars owed that have been agreed to,” Roosevelt said. The college deals with each student’s finances on an individual basis and very few students are not already on mutually-accepted payment plans, he said.

In addition to agreeing to the student plan, Roosevelt and other administrators apologized at a community meeting Thursday for poor communication that occurred over the previous weeks.

“I feel what has been asked on the part of the students is legitimate and the communication has not been robust enough,” Roosevelt said.

Antioch students, who Roosevelt said are a more needy group than the at-large college population, are already given financial support in the form of the Horace Mann Fellowship — a full-tuition scholarship for the college’s first four classes — and reduced room and board fees, which are based on need. The average Antioch student is charged roughly 50 percent of the $8,800 room and board fee, Roosevelt said.

Still, for some students, those discounts aren’t enough. One problem, according to Blanton, is that Antioch has yet to be accredited. As a result Antioch students cannot receive federal financial aid, which often includes loans that can be deferred until after graduation. Loans from private banks can be hard to negotiate, especially for low-income students without someone to co-sign, he added.

Though the decision to collect unpaid fees had nothing to do with accreditation, Antioch does need to function along federal aid guidelines in preparation for when the college does become accredited, Roosevelt said. According to Blanton, the college may be recommended for accreditation in November, six months after which students may be eligible for federal financial aid.

While students had been receiving regular room and board bills from the college, there were no consequences if they went unpaid. That abruptly changed last month, when the finance department sent a letter to students asking them to pay up, or they would be unable to take classes. Students were “paralyzed,” and some began packing up their dorm rooms, according to assistant literature professor Geneva Gano, in part because many didn’t realize they could arrange a payment plan with the finance department ahead of a July 1 deadline. Even when they learned that payments could be spread over the next six months, some still could not pay.

Coming together

In June second-year student Eros created an online petition on the website that garnered the signatures of 125 current and former Antioch students and other supporters. It asked the college to postpone its deadline and create more flexible payment options.

Wrote first-year student Eric Rhodes at the petition’s website: “While I am lucky enough to not be financially affected, the way things are being handled means that some of my best friends at the school and some of the most talented would be forced to leave. It’s hard for me to imagine what our college would look like without them.”

Students then went away on a short summer break. During that time the deadline to pay, or agree to a payment plan, was extended two more times, to Monday, July 8, and then to Friday, July 12. So when students returned to campus over the weekend of July 6–7, they quickly organized to push for an extension of the deadline. Even though at that point only five students were still unable to pay (even with a payment schedule) their fellow students came to their aid in what Blanton described as a show of solidarity.

“It was incredible to see everyone come together and support each other,” Blanton said.

According to Gano, the literature professor, the crisis event ended up being “a positive example of collaborative efforts,” and will likely result in a more open and conciliatory approach to student finances. Blanton also sees the bright side.

“It’s a really difficult situation to restart a college and we’re doing a really good job and this is an example of that,” Blanton said. “A huge reason I’m here is I get to restart a college. It’s like an extra class, but it’s consistently my favorite class.”

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