Providence Mayor Wants New Tax On College Students To Ease City's Financial Deficit

The mayor of Providence wants to slap a $150-per-semester tax on the 25,000 full-time students at Brown University and three other private colleges in the city, saying they use resources and should help ease the burden on struggling taxpayers.

Mayor David Cicilline (sis-ah-LEEN-ee) said the fee would raise between $6 million and $8 million a year for the city, which is facing a $17 million deficit.

If enacted, it would apparently be the first time a U.S. city has directly taxed students just for being enrolled.

The proposal is still in its early stages. But it has riled some students, who say it would unfairly saddle them with the city's financial woes and overlook their volunteer work and other contributions, including money spent in restaurants, bars and stores.

"We want to support the city as best we can, but financially is not really what we can afford to give," said Heather Lee, president of the Brown Graduate Student Council. "We're more able to provide labor, we're more able to apply the things that we're learning in the classroom, than we are to write a $300 check."

Cities often look for revenue from universities to compensate for their tax-exempt status, and many schools already make voluntary payments to local governments. Providence's four private schools -- Brown, Providence College, Johnson & Wales University and the Rhode Island School of Design -- agreed in 2003 to pay the city nearly $50 million over 20 years.

The idea of a student head tax has been floated before in other cities, generally to start discussions about collecting money from universities in lieu of taxes.

But Tony Pals, spokesman for the National Association of Independent Colleges and Universities, said he knows of no city that charges students a direct fee.

"The bottom line is, a tax like this has never gone into effect," Pals said. "The timing is also unfortunate, given the significant amount of budget-cutting that institutions have had to go through because of the recession."

The four schools generate more than $1 billion a year in economic activity, said Daniel Egan, president of the Association of Independent Colleges and Universities of Rhode Island. They employ nearly 9,000 people in a city of roughly 172,000.

"We think the indirect and direct benefit of students within the community would outweigh any costs," Egan said.

Cicilline's office said there is no study showing how much students cost Providence for the use of police and fire protection and other services. The city points out that the private schools' property, valued at more than $1.7 billion, is tax-exempt.

Many college students are already involved in tutoring, arts education and mentoring for public school students. Providence College, for instance, offers student volunteers to staff after-school programs, and Brown is raising money for a $10 million endowment to help the city school system.

Even so, Cicilline said everyone should be expected to help the city through this economic crisis. He said he wants students to have a vested interest in their city instead of seeing themselves as visitors just passing through.

"It's really about a shared commitment to the well-being of your community that you're a part of," the mayor said. "Everyone should be doing their part and coming to the table."

Students at Rhode Island College, a state school in the city, and the Providence campus of the University of Rhode Island would be exempt.

A city head tax on students would need approval from both the City Council and state lawmakers. However, a similar measure failed in the state Legislature in 2005, and Rhode Island's colleges are likely to fight this proposal, too.

Josephine Nash, a Brown junior from New York City, said the idea seems reasonable, provided it doesn't overly burden students on financial aid. "I do spend the majority of my year here, and I do use the services of the city," she said.

But Susette Holman, a Johnson & Wales freshman also from New York, said her mother works seven days a week, sometimes 14 hours a day, to put her through school. "I have three sisters at home, so how's she going to be able to provide an extra tuition fee?" she asked.

University administrators also object, saying students and their families spend years saving for college and shouldn't have to bear more costs. Tuition at Brown costs nearly $40,000 a year, with about 40 percent of undergraduates receiving financial aid.

"Given at least the rhetoric of trying to retain students, be a place that's attractive to students and young people shortly after college, it just seemed counterintuitive to at least the students I talked to," said Richard Spies, Brown's executive vice president for planning.