The traditional idea of a college town is one that’s truly built up around the college. These towns have bars and restaurants packed with students. They root for the school’s sports teams, especially the local hotels and motels who fill up with visiting family during games and graduations. The campus is the most identifiable landmark in town. It’s the largest contributor to the local economy. It’s in the identity of the town.
Many of the largest state schools are in these sorts of towns. The students of Arizona State University makes up over a third of the population of Tempe. University of Georgia students a little shy of 30% of Athens’ population. Virginia Tech is in Blacksburg, a city of 42,620. Total number of students at VA Tech? 31,087. Over 70%.
Yet in most cases, the student population is considered essentially transient, and that has a big impact on both the way these towns think about the students as members of the community and the way the students view themselves.
Berkeley, CA, realizing the size and impact of UC Berkeley (about 32% of city population), recently approved a measure that would let the school be considered its own voting district. It was an amazing act of faith in the judgment of the student body and their say in local politics. A similar proposal was suggested regarding the University of Vermont (about 27% of Burlington), but was dismissed by the local government. The Burlington city government simply assumed that students would not be interested enough to get involved.
That assumption might not be as baseless as it sounds. UVM hasn’t been able to drum up enough enthusiasm among the student body. So what’s happening? Why would students pass up the opportunity for greater direct influence?
As politically involved as students can be, it’s rare to see that same passion applied to local politics. As far as I can tell, here are the biggest reasons why:
- The student body is made up of lots of people from lots of different places. I went to a college outside of my home state, and probably around 80% of my friends were from out of state (or country) too. Our local politics were the decision made by the school itself. That’s what had a direct impact on our day-to-day lives. It didn’t feel like we moved into a community as much as we created a new community of people from around the country (or planet).
- Local politics aren’t as flashy, dramatic, or interesting as national/international politics. Strike up a conversation about politics and it would usually be (at the time I was in college) about the Iraq War, abortion, or gun control. Either international relations or broad social issues. As students (especially at a liberal arts college), we were used to speaking about vague theoretical concepts of how things should be. We weren’t used to discussing practical issues like construction on the freeway or a tax hike on property owners. We had very little media exposure to city-level concerns, even in the media we created ourselves (like student newspapers).
- Students don’t think of themselves as members of the community yet. It’s a little like the old question of “What do you want to be when you grow up?” We get so used to thinking of our education as the time before we start our “real” lives. Local politics don’t seem like something we can, or should, be a part of yet. College students have largely not yet been greeted as full adults, so on some level, they don’t see themselves as full adults.
If Burlington changes its mind and lets UVM become a district, I think it would the student interest would follow. Students would be more interested in local politics if they were invited to become more invested. But if the city/community doesn’t try to get the students involved, it’s unlikely they’ll bother.
Whether or not a city wants so many young people to have a more powerful voice is a different matter…