Reading, Writing, and Civic Responsibility
Some quick and dirty political math: As of 2010, there were 152,000 students enrolled in Greater Boston’s higher education web, according to the Boston Redevelopment Authority. Let’s be austere and say there are 150,000 degree-seekers in the area. By the last census, around 950,000 humans called the Boston metro zone home. For convenience, a million Bostonians. Plug and chug (and show your work):
150,000 students ÷ 1,000,000 total residents = 15% student population in the metro area
Even adjusting pretty stringently for reporting errors, it’s safe to expect around 1 out of every 10 people in a five-mile radius from the Common is a student. Throw in recent graduates who remain after receiving their degrees (around half statewide, by some estimates), and the population of young people drawn to Boston for higher education swells even further.
Beyond sheer force of numbers, this bookish subset of Boston residents packs considerable economic heat. Data from 2000 put student spending at $850 million for the eight metro universities (BU, Northeastern, UMass-Boston, Harvard, BC, Brandeis, Tufts, and MIT), beside money shelled out for tuition and school expenses. BU’s estimate from 2008 put annual spending from its student body at $340 million in 2008. City Hall divines a net student contribution in the realm of $5 billion a year. Again, factor in productivity and taxes paid by recent grads, and the bottom line value of this part of the population grows considerably.
To diagram this out painfully: Boston has heaps on heaps of students and young alums, and they (or, often, their parents) are spending vital cash both on- and off-campus.
This no news to Boston-area businesses. Savvy landlords, restaurants and all manner of service providers cater to the student crowd, offering sublet-friendly agreements, special rates, and student memberships that reflect the punch this demographic packs on a consumer level.
But when it comes to city politics, students and recent grads carry far less clout than their numbers recommend. Instead of courting students as constituents, city leaders tend to treat students and the young grads as noisy, alcoholic nuisances to be managed and policed, or as carpetbaggers without a true stake in political decisionmaking. Menino renews his vows every fall to fight the underage drinking windmill with zero-tolerance fervor, often in partnership with universities and their own police squads. Boston’s 2008 zoning law revision that explicitly bars five or more full-time undergrads from sharing an apartment feels like an overly pointed prohibition to many.
Rather than encouraging (or expecting) students to engage with the city as citizens, the dominant approach from City Hall when it comes to the academic hordes focuses on managing the “issues” that come with being such an educational epicenter.
To understand this issue better, you have to consider who votes in local elections. Who do Menino and city officials consider to be their constituent base? Not students, and not recent graduates, that’s for sure. Again, despite the heft of the student and recent grad set, there are clear reasons for local politics to sideline their views.
By far the clearest signal anyone can send to officials at any level is voter registration—in the strictest sense, you’re not a constituent unless you’re registered in a particular pol’s district. But as many as half of Boston-area students travel to Massachusetts from states afield, and many opt to cast ballots at home rather than register to vote in Boston. Anyone who transplants during a presidential election year such as this has to weigh the registration question based on where votes “count more,” in light of the electoral college horse race. Given Massachusetts’ solid track record of going blue, it comes as little surprise that so many students cast absentee ballots in their home districts.
Many young alums face a similar dilemma: At the same time that they’re building lives and careers rooted in Boston, they feel their votes are “wasted” when cast here rather than in the swing states of their birth.
The result is that a considerable chunk of this demographic removes itself quite literally from the political equation.
While feeling fully the impact of local policies for better or worse, students and young grads who remain on voter rolls in other states incentivize Boston elected leaders to disregard their voices.
By denying themselves even the possibility of participating in local elections, thousands of students and grads effectively marginalize their own interests and insulate City Hall from accountability on issues relevant to the under-25 crowd.
Recent initiatives like the Future Boston Alliance have jarred city officials into heeding the views of its younger citizens. But the novelty of such political involvement by young Bostonians is itself telling: the city is used to playing host to students and recent graduates without treating them as serious political stakeholders. As students fill the city’s universities for another academic year, their clout on local issues will amount to little unless they count themselves as local constituents.
FOR MORE INFORMATION—AND YOU KNOW, LIKE, TO REGISTER AND SHIT—CHECK OUT @MASSVOTE AND MASSVOTE.ORG