A New York University student who grabbed headlines when she accused the school of pulling a bait-and-switch with its sticker price has been forced to move in to university housing under threat of expulsion. Nia Mirza, who, after being told by university officials that she could live with relatives near NYU’s Washington, D.C., campus in order to help offset the cost of her tuition, says she must now move in to campus housing if she wishes to continue her education there.
The school’s Student Labor Action Movement (SLAM) argues that NYU backtracking on the housing exemption it granted earlier this year amounts to retaliation for Mirza’s outspoken comments about the school’s high tuition costs.
“It’s retaliation because she’s a student-debt organizer,” says Robert Ascherman, a senior and organizer with SLAM. “We’re seeing a very, very clear case that NYU only cares about making money and doesn’t give a shit about its students.”
Mirza’s fight with the university began almost as soon as she enrolled at NYU’s Washington, D.C. campus in March. She was upset that the sticker price students were quoted before enrolling “was suddenly raised after students paid the enrollment deposit,” as she wrote in a Change.org petition that has garnered around 5,500 signatures. Mirza, who is from Pakistan, claimed the university didn’t alert her to the change and that the cost of her first year of college ballooned to $71,000, several thousand dollars more than her family budgeted.
Mirza says the petition wasn’t an attempt to go to war with NYU. “My goal was to determine how many students are facing the same problem I am now,” she says. “I discovered this is a huge problem at NYU and a lot of people are suffering.”
Of course, the reality that many NYU students carry lots of debt while the university finances its global expansion (and the vacation homes of some top administrators) is hardly new. In 2011, the Voice reported that NYU created more student debt than any nonprofit college or university in the country. The school regularly appears on rankings of the country’s most expensive colleges (number three this year, according to Business Insider) and worst financial aid programs. At a rally earlier this month, an NYU junior said she worked as a prostitute to finance her education. Still, NYU remains a dream school for students like Mirza.
That’s why even though Mirza was waitlisted at the New York campus, she agreed to enroll at the university’s D.C. outpost as a freshman and move to New York next year. But she had a request: She wanted to live with relatives to offset the $11,486 minimum cost of living at the Washington campus. On top of the roughly $32,000 in scholarship funding she says she receives (including a study-abroad grant), she thought that if she didn’t have to pay for housing, NYU would still fit her family’s budget.
“I told them I have relatives in D.C. and I don’t want to live on campus,” Mirza recalls. “It’s going to be very, very expensive for me.”
After some back-and-forth with university administrators over the summer, the school granted Mirza an exemption to its policy that all NYU students in D.C. must live on campus, according to emails obtained by the Voice. On March 19, NYU Admissions Officer Colin Brown wrote to Mirza, “If you would like to switch to Washington, DC, so that you are in the United States and can live with your family in Virginia, then we can go ahead and do that.” That arrangement seemed to be on track when, on July 16, a different administrator wrote that “we are able to grant your appeal as a special circumstance.”
Mirza planned to live with an aunt and uncle in Leesburg, Virginia, about 40 miles away. But that plan changed on September 1, during the first week of school, when she sent an email asking for permission to move in with a cousin in Arlington, significantly closer to campus.
Two separate administrators responded to that email the following day, writing that her request was denied and demanding she immediately move to university housing or withdraw from the university. “Given…that this new housing request has not been approved, you will need to move into the NYU DC residence immediately if you would like to continue at NYU for your undergraduate studies,” wrote Beth Haymaker, NYU’s director of global programs. “As you know and to further clarify, you will be billed for NYU DC housing as of today.”
That response confused Mirza. She’d still be living with relatives, and would be even closer to campus. But she complied, she says, out of fear of expulsion.
“I’m in a foreign country and I don’t want any problem that I cannot handle,” Mirza says of her decision to move on campus. “I’m not starting any fight with the university. I’m here to study. But I do understand there is an exploitation game going on at NYU. Students don’t get a clear picture of what it is to be an NYU student until they are at NYU.”
NYU spokesman John Beckman says that in the past three years the university has granted a housing exemption to just one freshman among thousands of students at its campuses around the world. “If key circumstances under which we had granted such an exemption changed, the exemption would no longer be valid, and the student would be expected to live in NYU housing, as is clearly required.”
If a university housing administrator were to “erroneously [give] an answer about whether or not housing was mandatory,” Beckman says, the school might try to honor that mistake by considering an exemption. He says he cannot comment on Mirza’s case.
And though Mirza stops short of calling the university’s response retribution for circulating a petition about tuition increases, members of SLAM are planning a sit-in this afternoon at 3 p.m. in Haymaker’s office to demand a meeting about Mirza’s housing situation.
Without mentioning Mirza by name, Beckman calls the group’s accusation of retaliation “utter nonsense.”
“Isn’t the more obvious, logical, and persuasive conclusion in such a case that some circumstance had changed so that the particular exemption was no longer in line with our practices for granting exemptions?” he says.
Mirza says she’s hoping the attention she draws will help start a conversation about the effects of student debt she’s seeing all around her. “I don’t want people to pity me,” she says. “I want something to change.”