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Friday, November 20, 2009

Why students shrug at tuition hikes, but scream about taxes

Posted By on Fri, Nov 20, 2009 at 6:18 PM

In a blog post earlier today, I asked what seemed like a fairly simple question: Why are students so worked up about Mayor Luke Ravenstahl's proposed "Get The Hell of My Lawn" tax ... when they merely grumble at tuition hikes that cost much more every year?

The answer to that question, it seems, is also simple. Students perceive a tangible return for the money they invest in their tuition. Even if they don't get to use the shiny new labs, those investments too enhance the prestige of the school -- and thus the value of their degree.

The way Ravenstahl has structured this tax, meanwhile, almost seems calculated to make them resent it. 

Our intrepid reporter Chris Young was at a city council meeting on the tax today. Among the 50 in attendance were numerous students. He asked several of them a variant of the question, "Why don't you get this pissed off at tuition hikes?"

Not surprisingly, most students he spoke to agreed that, in the words of Pitt sophomore Austin Davis, "universities need to hold the line on tuition." But they also felt there was some kind of payoff. A Robert Morris student, Justin Lotz, put it this way: "Even though I'm charged fees [at school], we have more equipment. If I had to give a tax to the city, I wouldn't see any benefit from it."

I'll be honest: A part of me is tempted to say, "Grow up, students. Being a citizen isn't the same as going shopping." I pay tax money to pave roads I'll never use, and to subsidize a fire department I hope never to call on. I don't mind, partly because people out there are doing the same thing. It's part of living in a community.

In fact, students have a sort of touching belief that everyone else sees nothing but an upside in having them around. One student, for example, asked Young to "Imagine Oakland without college students." Well, I lived in Oakland for two years, and there are plenty of long-term residents for whom that is a constant daydream. But those residents learn to take the good with the bad, the excesses of Semplefest with all the advantages students bring. That's part of living in a community too.

But I can't blame students if they aren't racing to sing Kum-ba-yah with the rest of the city these days. As I noted in a column after the tax was first announced, it's almost as if city leaders were trying to make students as angry as possible. Almost all of the tax revenues are earmarked to pay off the city's massive pension debt ... which means "Many of the city's youngest residents would be footing the bill for some of its oldest."

That's not really the mayor's fault. The money is earmarked for pensions because, earlier this year, state financial overseers placed a mandate on the city to start paying at least $10 million a year into its pension fund. The overseers did absolutely nothing to suggest where that money was going to come from. So this is what Ravenstahl came up with. 

The result is a revenue stream that pays for the one thing students will have the least sympathy for: a pension whose problems date back before they ever enrolled -- and whose beneficiaries may have retired before they were born. 

Which is too bad, because the thing is ... students and the rest of the city have one big thing in common. In one way or another, EVERYONE is being beggared by colleges. Tuition goes up, while contributions to city coffers remain flat or decline.

And while it's fun, and fashionable, to blame Ravenstahl for all this, it's bigger than him.

I've been a reporter for nearly 15 years. And throughout my career, city officials have complained that the non-profits -- among the city's biggest employers -- need to do more. Ravenstahl doesn't have much in common with his predecessor, Tom Murphy ... except for the fact that both have pleaded for more support from the universities and other non-profits. 

Why does nobody seem able to keep the real problem here in mind? That question, it seems, isn't quite so simple.

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