American Local Government: Governing in a College Town

Many colleges and universities call Cambridge, Massachusetts home. These schools shape the city both economically and socially, with over 30 percent of Cambridge’s population being enrolled in an undergraduate or graduate program. Couple that statistic with Harvard and MIT’s statuses as the two largest employers in the city and Cambridge stands out as a clear example of a college town. These institutions wield so much influence over local life that it comes as no surprise that local governments and local universities have complex relationships. Universities can both benefit and harm the cities they call home, and local governments face unique challenges when working to maintain the connection between colleges and their hometown.

Engaging Young Voters

One issue unique to Cambridge and other college towns is the large transient population. Students come and go, living on or near to campus during the academic year and moving away during breaks. These students have two homes: their original hometown and their college town, and college students can choose to vote in their hometown or their college town. This transience makes it difficult for local officials to engage students in the community, leading to low numbers of voter turnout in local elections. In the last municipal election, for example, Cambridge had a voter turnout of just 16 percent. But, it is important for students to vote and be active in their local college town government because many of the issues decided by local government have a large impact on students. For instance, 70 percent of college students work while in school, and local governments can choose to set a higher minimum wage.

Cambridge City Councillor Sumbul Siddiqui is focused on improving voter turnout and community involvement, particularly among young voters. She told the HPR, “one of the reasons I ran was that there are not a lot of young people in local government. I am the youngest person on the city council, and I am 30 years old. How can we do a better job of reaching young people?” Candidates for city council can be as young as 18 since the law only requires that they be registered to vote in Cambridge. However, as Siddiqui says, youth involvement in Cambridge’s local government is low. The average age of the city council is 55 years, and the second youngest city councillor is Alanna Mallon at 48 years old.   

During her time in office, Siddiqui has done a lot to reach out to college students. “There are a lot of ways as city councillors to do outreach,” she said. “I think we should target college students to make sure they know there are internships and opportunities to do research [in local government].” As part of her outreach efforts, Siddiqui holds office hours at various locations around Cambridge where any constituent can come to have a conversation with her. Alongside City Councillor Alanna Mallon, Siddiqui also hosts a podcast about local government projects. She has participated in several on campus events at Harvard University, including a discussion about women in local government and a candidate forum during her election.

The Problem of Affordable Housing

Affordable housing is another major issue facing a large number of cities across the nation, and in separate interviews with the HPR both Siddiqui and Vice Mayor Jan Devereux mentioned affordable housing as the most important problem that the city council must solve. This issue is complex, and a large number of factors contribute to the housing shortage. Broadly speaking, Cambridge is an attractive place to live, so many people want to live in the city. This high demand for housing in turn drives up the cost of housing up.

Although most undergraduate students live on campus, many of the over 20,000 graduate students who also call Cambridge home must live off campus when universities cannot provide enough housing. Vice Mayor Jan Devereux noted that “the biggest point of tension [between Cambridge and local universities] right now is around graduate student housing.” She said that students compete with other residents for housing, and could at times force out families with children.  

Encouraging Universities to Do More

Universities are largely tax-exempt, but local governments can still collect payments from these institutions. In Cambridge, Harvard and MIT make payments through a Payment in Lieu of Taxes program. Siddiqui mentioned that “universities make payments through the PILOT program, and the amount they pay is negotiated and can be renegotiated.” She also noted that universities’ PILOT payments generally comprised a small portion of their endowments, and that the city would benefit from increasing the amount that universities must pay.

Outside of monetarily contributing to a city, universities can work to foster a closer community. Siddiqui said that “Harvard and MIT play a large role in defining Cambridge, but I think for a lot of residents in Cambridge there’s still this disconnect between the universities and everyday life. They could do a better job of connecting to everyday residents, and as councillors, I think we can facilitate this connection by giving the universities some options for what they can do.” In order to foster a connection between colleges and the community, institutions can participate in community events or give local residents greater access to campus. Siddiqui said that universities could take small measures, such as opening access to their libraries and other facilities, to greatly improve their relationships with local communities.

The Benefits of Cooperation

If local officials can work well with universities to navigate the unique challenges that college towns face, they and their cities can reap a large number of benefits. In addition to employing many residents themselves, colleges can indirectly stimulate employment in their host city. The influx of students into college towns allows these cities to support restaurants and businesses, and the numerous qualified workers who graduate from these institutions often attract new industries to the area. Moreover, college towns across the United States typically have lower unemployment rates than the rest of the nation. Cambridge, for instance, has the lowest unemployment rate in Massachusetts. As of March, the unemployment rate in Cambridge was 2.1 percent, compared to 4.1 percent in the United States.

In Cambridge, local officials are working hard to maintain a positive relationship with the many local colleges and universities. “Town-gown relations ebb and flow. Overall I think relations [between the city and universities] are pretty good,” Devereux said. Although the bond between universities and their hometowns is sometimes strained, their mutually beneficial relationship will ensure that they will continue to collaborate in the future.

Image Credit: Daderot/Wikimedia Commons

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