American students have been struggling with steadily rising tuition and record-high debt for some time. Republicans are increasingly showing a willingness to cut spending on higher-education institutions and raise taxes on universities, to the point that some journalists and activists have accused them of waging a “war on college.” The GOP’s motivations for this are still a matter of debate. Regardless of the reason, though, party leaders’ confidence in this strategy also assumes that American students are not politically organized enough to stop them.
This may have been a logical assumption: Student protest in response to the cost of higher-education has yet to force a national reckoning the way it has in other countries such as England, South Africa, and Chile. But House Republicans’ proposal to levy an unprecedented tax targeting a low-income segment of graduate students managed to mobilize one of the least likely campus groups for activism. “In the history of student protest it’s unusual for graduate students to be politically engaged and involved,” said Angus Johnston, a City University of New York history professor who studies campus activism. “Most student protests in the past have been led by undergraduates, and graduate students have played a small role if any at all. The big exception to that has been graduate student unionization pushes.” (Graduate students sought to better define their role in universities as employees in need of collective-bargaining powers starting in the late 1960s and have seen new momentum after courts ruled in favor of unionization once more in 2016.)