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Monday, November 30, 2009

Students Take Oral Exams at City Council

Posted By on Mon, Nov 30, 2009 at 2:46 PM

As noted here earlier, today was the day for students to make a show of force against the city's proposed "tuition tax." Our very own Chris Young reports that some 150 did so, creating a "standing room only" crowd in city council chambers.

City councilors spent some time trying to make the institutions themselves the bad guy here. (Perhaps with some justice, as we'll see shortly.) When Mary Hines, the president of Carlow University and chair of the Pittsburgh Council on Higher Education, testified against the tax, Jim Motznik saw a quick opportunity to score points. 

After Hines stepped from the podium, Motznik asked her to come back. "Would you share with us your salary?" Motznik asked.

Hines disclosed that her salary was $210,000. Oooooooooohhhhhh ....

But opponents of the tax were up to some pandering of their own, as when Daniel Jimenez -- who is rapidly becoming the best-known Pittsburgh college student not wearing a jock strap -- testified. Jimenez testified against the tax, and councilor Bill Peduto asked him how much he earned. Jimenez, a grad student, said he made roughly $25,000 a year, mostly due to a fellowship he earned at Pitt.

Yes, yes, you're all very clever, you city councilors. But this back-and-forth just shows -- again -- the dilemma here. City officials are going after students because the large non-profits themselves are too rich and powerful. The politicians look like the bullies today, but that's because they've been getting bullied for years. To use an analogy that should appear on every Pittsburgh college student's SAT:

City politician : student::

a) Large institutional non-profit : city politician

b)  Mistreated pit bull : small child

c)  Underpaid butler : sloppy houseguest

d) All of the above 

The correct answer, of course, is "D." In fact, last week provided a perfect illustration, though you may have missed it. Even as Pitt is urging government to keep its hands out of student pockets ... Pitt was requesting tax dollars from government.

You may have missed this brief Post-Gazette blurb, as I did, because it ran on Thanksgiving Day. But Pitt is making its annual budgetary request from the state. The school is seeking a little under $200 million from Harrisburg -- which is "only" a 5 percent increase over the previous year. 

There's much more about the budget request in the current issue of the University Times. An excerpt here:  

After several years of 8.5 percent requests, Pitt is seeking a 5 percent increase in its state appropriation for FY11, which begins July 1. Asking for a 5 percent increase "demonstrates need without being unrealistic," said Vice Chancellor for Budget and Controller Arthur G. Ramicone ...

In Pitt’s Nov. 12 request to the state Department of Education, administrators stated that the University intends to limit tuition increases to 4 percent and to increase the compensation pool by at least 3 percent if the state appropriates the  $194.68 million the University is seeking.

Look at that: If Pitt gets its nearly $200 million, it will hold students to a tuition hike of only 4 percent. I was an English major myself, but assuming tuition of $13,000 per student, that means next year, Pitt students will be shelling out an additional $520 ... roughly three times what Ravenstahl's tax would cost them. And again -- that's assuming Pitt gets the money it wants from OTHER branches of government. If it doesn't, tuition will likely increase more.

Think about that for a second. The decisions made by Harrisburg's politicians could cost students far more than ANYTHING Luke Ravenstahl has considered. But guess which public official is the bad guy here? 

But hey, at least there's some upside for those paying tuition. Among the items in Pitt's budget request: $449,000 for "student life initiatives."

Got that? Pitt is asking nearly half a million bucks from the state to support "student life" ... but says the city has no business asking students to cover living costs for anyone else. 

Of course, in the topsy-turvy world of non-profit advocacy, Pitt can claim that $449,000 is something the rest of the city should be thankful for. After all, it's money coming from Harrisburg that might otherwise not end up here. But the point remains: If Pitt can ask government for money to benefit students, is it REALLY so shocking government is asking students for a few bucks in return? 

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