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Fatima Aqeel ’12: Providence’s unwanted students

I’m not sure what Mayor David Cicilline’s ’83 experiences were like here on College Hill.

But I can’t help but wonder where he’s getting his ideas regarding student contributions to the city. Did he feel that Brown students were just a bunch of rich kids who were unconcerned about the rest of the Providence when he was around? Were they just a bunch of moochers who took what they got from their community for granted, and gave little in return?

Along with proposing a plan to tax hospitals (I’m guessing his experience with those hasn’t been that great either), Cicilline is a proponent of a “student tax,” which would place a hefty $150-per-student-per-semester charge on all of Providence’s private colleges. Much heated discussion has followed the latter proposition in forums ranging as far and wide as the Senate, newspapers and even Facebook groups.

Proponents of the tax argue that it is high time that students pay up for the large share of the city’s services that they consume, such as, umm…the fire department (always there to rescue us from the scourge of burnt popcorn), and that they should contribute to the city in its time of dire financial need.  

But there’s another way to think about it. If you, as a student, start getting charged for any negative externalities you might impose on the community, then technically, shouldn’t you get paid for any positive externalities you contribute to the city too, or for any services you provide (in the non-prostitution way)? Heck, if that started happening, I’d quit my job right now!

Let’s take, as a case in point, examples of what the positive externalities of Brown students are on Providence.

I am part of a program called University Community Academic Advising Program that is specially designed to provide students with opportunities to get to know Providence better and to engage in community service here. For example, students from this program take part in efforts to teach English or math at high schools after school hours, and to help take care of the mentally disabled. They take time out for the city from their own school work on a completely unconditional basis.  

This pattern of service is obviously not just restricted to UCAAP.

You might be a tutor at a school or a member of an environmental organization on campus. You might be part of student programs such as Brown Refugee Youth Tutoring and Enrichment, which helps the numerous refugee families in Providence, or of Project Health, which also works with immigrant communities.

I went to a Project Health meeting recently and listened to the students speak earnestly about their success stories in trying to link immigrants to the resources they need. I was taken aback by how passionate the volunteers were, even though they weren’t being paid a dime for their efforts.

Maybe it’s time they started seeing some cash money for all the hard work they do.

Moreover, our positive externalities do not end merely with community service. The universities are banks of knowledge which will help the country in future. The United States is an increasingly knowledge-based economy, and with this reality in mind, it might not be wise for Providence to appear hostile to universities.

In the real world, Brown students’ Ivy League education and the skills they’ve acquired in college will fetch them high salaries. Obviously, they would never consider demanding compensation from the city because contributing their time is part of being good citizens. And as good citizens, they want to use what they have to make people’s lives better.
As this student tax is discussed in the Senate, however, they are forced to wonder: is what they have to offer Providence only in terms of money? Do students’ efforts for the community not account for anything?

Jake Heimark ’10 writes, concerning the tax, “It alienates students, faculty and staff, and discourages us from getting more involved in the community” (“An unfair burden,” Sept. 7). Students are being made to feel unwanted, and we have started to feel undervalued because our efforts are going unrecognized.  

What may happen in the future is that many bright students from other states or abroad, students who are genuinely interested in making their community better and who would benefit the country’s knowledge bank, will not apply to the colleges here because it is too expensive to live in Providence.

Governor Donald Carcieri ’65 understands what the impact of the fee on these students will be. The Providence Journal cites him as having said, “The cost of higher education is already out of reach for many families and assessing them a $300 yearly fee only exacerbates the burden.”

In the end, therefore, if this tax succeeds in being passed, it will not just be students, but Providence itself, that will suffer.

Fatima Aqeel ‘12 is an economics concentrator from Karachi, Pakistan. She can be reached at fatima_aqeel@brown.edu