Why students should care about local politics

Students can maximize their impact in their communities by getting involved in local organizations.
September 25, 2011

As students are acutely aware, the costs of higher education have risen dramatically in recent years. The problem is rapidly approaching crisis levels; more and more students are being forced to take on crushing debt burdens and longer hours at part-time jobs, and many have reached the depressing conclusion that a college degree is simply out of reach.

To address this crisis, college affordability advocates have thus far focused most of their efforts on trying to persuade state and federal officials to increase higher education funding. This is a noble objective, but that strategy is unlikely to produce substantial results in the current political environment. Republican legislators have repeatedly demonstrated that they care far more about tax cuts than investments in the nation’s long-term prospects; with divided government at both the state and federal level, it’s hard to see how any budget increase could bypass their obstruction.

Given these funding constraints, affordability advocates are going to need to explore more creative ways to bring down the costs of college. They must look beyond just the price of tuition and consider how we can reduce students’ other primary expenses: housing, transportation and food. The most fertile opportunities to make improvements on these issues lie at the local level. Accordingly, affordability advocates should spend a greater portion of their time and resources lobbying on behalf of student interests at City Hall and other local entities.

Student interests are severely under-represented at the local level because they have had atrociously low voting rates in the past. In Minneapolis’s most recent municipal election, for instance, student-dominated precincts had turnout rates of just 2-4 percent. Students punch below their weight at the state and federal levels as well, but the discrepancy is much worse at the local level because students are a transient population. While most students will remain residents of Minnesota after they graduate, and nearly all of them will remain citizens of the U.S., they usually leave the University of Minnesota area after about four years. As a result, students tend to ignore local affairs, and local politicians often ignore their interests in turn.

The good news is that if students get more involved in their communities, there are many ways they could improve local policies to make college more accessible. Most importantly, policymakers could reduce students’ rents by allowing the University-area housing supply to expand. A February 2011 study commissioned by the University District Alliance found that the vacancy rate for student-oriented housing in the university district was just 1.3 percent. This extraordinarily low vacancy rate demonstrates that despite the recent construction boom in the area, there are still far more students who would like to live near the University than there are buildings to house them. By reducing restrictions on the housing supply, the city could simultaneously reduce average rents and enable more students to live near campus.

The primary reason the demand to live near campus has risen so high in the first place is because students are trying to reduce their transportation costs, which have increased substantially as a result of higher gas prices. This gets at the second way that local policies can be improved to make students better off: Make the city less car-dependent. Students, being poorer than average, are disproportionate beneficiaries of investments in cheaper, alternative forms of transportation. While the University campus itself is quite friendly for walking, biking and public transit, much of the rest of the city is not. As a result, while it’s typically possible for students to get by without driving, many students nonetheless feel compelled to keep their cars despite the enormous costs of loan payments, maintenance, insurance and gasoline.

Transportation costs, in turn, are connected with food costs because one of the most important reasons students choose to keep their cars is to access affordable groceries. There are currently no affordable sources of groceries within walking distance of the University. Students must therefore choose between paying exorbitant prices at corner stores like House of Hanson or up-scale stores like Lunds, or traveling long distances to access cheaper stores like Cub and Rainbow. If community leaders can attract an affordable grocery store near the university, this would help reduce students’ food costs as well as their need to keep their cars.

The best way to get involved in these issues is to join your neighborhood association. These organizations have substantial influence on changes and developments that happen in neighborhood as well as the city at large. Local council members and other public officials frequently attend the neighborhood meetings, so they’re a good opportunity to voice your opinions to the people who make decisions. In addition, the associations distribute hundreds of thousands of dollars of city funds each year; if more students participate, they can help direct those funds toward programs that address their needs.

Local affairs may not always seem exciting, but they matter tremendously and their potential for improvement is extremely high precisely because others have paid little attention to them. If you want to maximize your impact, it’s often best to look close to home.

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