Tufts students march against tiered housing policy. Photo by Amira Al-Subaey, Tufts class of 2019.
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More than 200 Tufts University students, faculty, and allies from surrounding communities held a march and demonstration last week to protest a new campus housing policy, according to the Boston Herald. Over the summer, the Tufts administration announced that its annual lottery system for on-campus housing during each academic year would be heavily modified to establish “14 different tiers, ranging from $8,220 to $10,219 a year, in contrast to the $7,934 students currently pay.”

 

According to a recent press release from the Tufts Housing League (THL), Tufts Student Action, and several other student groups: “The administration’s tiered housing proposal will effectively segregate dorms by income levels. Students able to afford the $2,000-a-year difference will live in the nicest dorms, while low-income students, middle-income students, and students on financial aid will opt to live in old dorms without kitchens—or be forced to live off-campus and exacerbate the lack of affordable housing in the Somerville and Medford communities. This classist pricing plan reflects the same gentrifying process that the university is imposing on the surrounding communities.…”

 

The student activists are demanding that “Tufts end this policy, commit to building a new dorm, and create a democratic decision-making structure.” They point out that the university has already been accepting more students than it can house and that this move will only force more students off-campus where they will put even more pressure on an overburdened local housing market. Pushing rental, condo, and house prices even further skyward.

 

There is clearly a good deal of student resentment about the move given that the release explains that “less than 24 hours after the initial tiered housing announcement was sent to students on July 23, THL put out a statement signed by 29 student groups and a petition which included 1,582 signatures (over 1,000 garnered in the first 48 hours alone).”

 

Tufts spokesman Patrick Collins told the Herald that “the school is simply following the footsteps of Bay State colleges.” He then “acknowledged some students would see an increase in housing costs” but said that student aid would be adjusted no matter what kind of housing they selected.

 

A quick glance at the “Tufts plans to move to a more expensive tiered housing system, because screw you” discussion on the /r/Tufts subreddit provides a window into informed student opinion on the university position. According to anonymous poster “75812”: “They don’t increase financial aid grants in proportion to cost increases, though they always claim that the ability to pay stays the same. In reality they give you more loans, and in some cases ‘review your need’ and then cut your aid entirely. A lot of my friends, particularly those involved in student organizing (hmmmmmmm) have lost all their aid and had to transfer. But it’s okay because 50k in loans meets 100% of your demonstrated need, even though you’ll be a serf for ten years! Many students on financial aid work two or three campus jobs, while others work nearly full time at off campus shops and restaurants.”

 

The THL’s “Coalition Statement Opposing the Tufts Administration’s Plan to Implement Tiered Housing Prices” echos that sentiment: “Tiered pricing would be a betrayal of low-income students, yet another indication, along with perpetually rising tuition and paltry student resources, that the administration does not care about them. This policy would invariably lead to economic segregation on campus as richer students congregate in the more expensive dorms and lower-income and middle-class students are left with the cheaper, less comfortable housing units. Despite claims to the contrary, students on financial aid may be blocked from higher-cost housing, either by complicated or inadequate reimbursement policy or by self selection.”

 

Unsurprisingly, the lived experience of on-campus financial aid students at an elite school (in terms of its $73,500 sticker price this academic year at least) like Tufts is a far cry from administration public relations speak on matters like housing. So, I think the activists are doing a fine job of researching the policy crisis the school’s action is creating and proposing an eminently reasonable solution: scrap the plan and build at least one new dorm at speed.

 

This is an old problem in Boston and environs given how many institutions of higher learning we have in the area. In fact, Boston University under the leadership of the infamous John Silber was doing pretty much the same thing when I started school there in 1984. Over-accepting students to get the (bloated) tuition and (considerable) federal loan monies that came with them, and then placing literally hundreds of the new arrivals who we called “nomads” into hotel rooms for at least a semester or two. Until the usual forces of attrition did their job, and brought student numbers down to what would fit in the already packed dorms. Which only worked after floor lounges were converted to dorm rooms. The main aspect of that past crisis that differs from the current imbroglio at Tufts was that BU did not have a tiered dorm system at that time.

 

Over the intervening decades, big private schools like BU and Northeastern have gradually built more dorms and mandated that students stay in dorms at least the first year or two—under pressure from abutting neighborhoods and city governments. But they still play an outsized role in causing our region’s ongoing housing crisis.

 

All our wildly expensive major universities—Tufts, MIT, and Harvard first among them—make the situation even worse than it would otherwise be by attracting very wealthy students in significant numbers to move to the Boston area. Who then distort the housing market on their own by offering landlords mountains of cash on demand for properties that would have once rented or sold for far less.

 

So it’s great to see a major coalition of students in the very heart of this system push back against something that will throw gasoline on the fire of bad housing policy at a school like Tufts.

 

However, I will add (as I have many times before) that we’re only going to fix all the problems that our existing university system creates—including housing crises—when we finally admit that the entire American higher education system is already public due to massive government subsidies at every level, and make the governance of all colleges public as well. While mandating university education as a right in a new K-20 system—coupled with expanded lifelong educational opportunities. All funded directly out of taxes like K-12 ed is now. Though preferably through income taxes, not property taxes… to ensure much more equality in educational outcome.

 

That’s way too tall an order for a bunch of student activists at one school to take on given everything they’ll have to do to win their current housing fight. As such, I’m just putting it out there for now.

 

Still, if enough student activists at enough colleges get behind the demand for federal higher ed reform it could happen overnight. And our society would be the better for it, when every student born in this country and every immigrant student besides is able to go all the way to grad school without paying a dime beyond taxes everyone pays anyway. Without, therefore, any of the terrible student debt that is crushing the life out of millions of former college students—young and old.

 

Sure, we’ll have to scrap a few government weapons programs to cover the new costs. And ludicrously large college “endowments”—like Tufts’ $1.8 billion war chest as of June 2017—that exist in no small part because schools get so much public money, would naturally need to be seized by the feds to help provide solid college educations for all who want one. But that’s a (super fun) discussion for another day.

 

For now, best wishes to the Tufts student activists. Hope you all force your administration to build a much-needed new dorm, and move from strength to strength in your campaign to make your school’s housing policy more fair for its campus community and surrounding communities alike.

 

Readers who would like to support the student campaign can check out the Tufts Housing League’s Facebook page at facebook.com/TuftsHousingLeague/.

 

Apparent Horizon—winner of the Association of Alternative Newsmedia’s 2018 Best Political Column award—is syndicated by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism. Jason Pramas is BINJ’s network director, and executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Copyright 2018 Jason Pramas. Licensed for use by the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and media outlets in its network.

Jason is executive director of the Boston Institute for Nonprofit Journalism and writes the columns Apparent Horizon and Townie. He is also executive editor and associate publisher of DigBoston. Before that, he founded the nonprofit Open Media Boston and other grassroots publications. Jason is a longtime labor-community organizer with an MFA in visual arts and is the institutional memory of our gang. His column Apparent Horizon is the winner of the 2018 Association of Alternative Newsmedia award for Best Political Column.


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