A Wall Street Journal article on Monday exclaimed that the recession has led to the closing of “The Bank of Mom and Dad” for many young Americans. While I have always found the term to be condescending, and somehow only applied to middle-class families and not the ultra-rich, students do seem to be more on-their-own today in their increasingly uphill struggle to improve their lives. However, these challenges haven’t stopped politicians from continuing the under-reported trend of making larger and larger withdrawals from the bank of students.
What do I mean by the bank of students? It refers to attempts to use funding cuts and fees to backhandedly make up for budget shortfalls at student expense, and it seems a tax by any other name would not smell just as sweet to these politicians.
Last Friday there was an article about New Jersey college towns seeking a $100 fee per student to cover the “free municipal services” provided by those towns. It is amazing how the economic benefits of a college or university to a town so quickly become invisible to those in charge.
“If you look at it from our standpoint, Montclair State has more than 18,000 students. At $100 per student it could mean $1.8 million,” said Little Falls Mayor Michael DeFrancisci, adding his state aid has been cut more than $500,000 in the past three years.
“Getting the money from college students is not something we’d take pleasure in doing,” DeFrancisci said.
18,000 students. That is 18,000 people who are most likely spending the majority of their income in Little Falls and paying sales taxes on those purchases. The university has a faculty, which not only provides jobs but additional taxpayers of income, sales, and property taxes. How many businesses in Little Falls exists because of the customer base that 18,000 students provides? How many students that are forced to work part time jobs to pay for school are paying income taxes as well? Without the university, Little Falls would be just another small town with no draw, and I guarantee it would have been hit much harder by the recession. But how soon is all that forgotten, as local politicians lick their chops at the prospect of digging their teeth into the hand that feeds them.
This is not just a New Jersey issue. Skyrocketing tuition has largely been the result of state legislatures cutting funding to the colleges and universities, forcing them to make up the difference out of student pockets. I’ve heard Republican legislators say that this is not a tax in disguise, but an investment that the student is making in their own life. It may be an investment in their own life, but it is also an investment in the community, state, and country. There is a world of difference in the economic well-being of a college graduate and someone without a degree, and today potential and current students are being priced out of their dreams and relegated to a second-class life from which they will never make up for the disadvantage.
Even those tuition dollars often end up benefiting the local community more than the students themselves. Take for example athletic budgets. Only 14 athletic programs broke even last year, with every other program costing the university, hence the students, money. However, the local communities are certainly profiting more than the schools. Football and basketball games bring a lot of money into local businesses as fans come to attend.
Through fees and tuition increases politicians are using the weapon of funding cuts to pull more money out of the bank of students as their districts benefit from their presence, but the bank is about to dry up. As we witnessed last month during the student protests, this exploitation is reaching its limit. In the past politicians were comfortable balancing budgets on the backs of students because they assumed they would not vote; that the young were the safest to indirectly raise taxes on. These politicians now face students that are more aware of their political power, have learned to organize, and are fighting for the economic security of their lives. Students will fight this exploitation because their quality of life is at stake, and those stakes create a powerful and committed opponent.