Pittsburgh and Providence plan to squeeze college students

Two cash-strapped cities, Pittsburgh and Providence, have proposed taxing some of their poorest and most vulnerable residents -- college students -- and the local universities are furious.

In his recently unveiled 2010 budget proposal, Pittsburgh Mayor Luke Ravenstahl called for levying a Post-Secondary Education Privilege tax, or a "Fair Share Tax," on tuition at a rate of 1 percent per year. For students at the University of Pittsburgh, paying $13,500 for in-state tuition, that would equal a $135 annual payment. Those attending the more selective Carnegie Mellon University, where tuition is $40,300, would pay $400.

In a statement, the Pittsburgh Council of Higher Education, which represents the city's institutions of higher learning, vowed to "do whatever is necessary to protect our students from being the easy target the mayor is seeking to solve the City's financial problems." For students on tight budgets, the new fees could pose a hardship.

"Students are obviously not thrilled about it," said Drew Singer, editor-in-chief of the Pitt News, the University of Pittsburgh's student newspaper, in an interview. "It's common sense for the mayor to tax the people who don't vote." Turnout for the recent mayoral election was light in neighborhoods were colleges were located.

Wealthy Universities Make Easy Targets

With their fat endowments, million-dollar presidential salaries and large collections of art, universities make a tantalizing target for municipal tax officials eager to replenish their coffers decimated by the economic downturn. There is little officials can do other than negotiate payments in lieu of taxes to recoup the costs of city services provided to the institutions. Universities argue that they and their students are an economic asset rather than a liability.

"It does not make much sense," said Justin Higginbottom, an analyst with the Center for State Fiscal Policy at the Tax Foundation. "It's a money grab."

Officials in Providence, though, see things differently.

Mayor David N. Cicilline of Providence got the state legislature to introduce two bills that would add to the burden of students. One would allow cities to levy a $300 fee on out-of-state students attending private institutions such as Brown University, the Rhode Island School of Design, Johnson & Wales University and Providence College. The proposal has generated considerable debate on local college campuses, according to the Providence Journal.

A Challenge to Tax-Exempt Status

Ano
ther bill would allow cities to levy a property tax on institutions that own property, challenging their tax-exempt status. "Either one of these proposals would have legal hurdles to face," said Marissa Quinn, vice president of public affairs and university relations at Brown, in an interview.

"During these challenging times, people in government are looking at any opportunity to raise revenue," Quinn says. "Taxing students and taxing institutions is counterproductive."

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