Students Tax Themselves to Make Campuses Greener

Students Tax Themselves to Make Campuses Greener

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The student union building at the University of California in Riverside, known as the HUB, is the pride of the school. It is a popular hangout that houses eateries, stores and student organizations.
In a few years, the student union will have another distinguishing feature – solar panels towering atop its two buildings.

The solar project, which will be funded entirely by students, is a first for the campus. In April, UC Riverside students passed a fee referendum, agreeing to tax themselves $2.50 per quarter for four years, and using the proceeds in part to install solar panels to boost renewable energy on campus.

“To us, [the solar panels] are more of a symbol,” said student Vicky Truong, 21, who was active in the campaign to pass the green fee. “Students are able to see it and associate our initiative with it. They can see that this is student-run and student-approved. We wanted to showcase that.”

Students at UC Riverside join their peers at schools in California, Texas and Arizona that also passed this year green fees to support sustainability projects. The willingness of students to essentially tax themselves to fund green projects at a time when they are feeling the pain of hefty tuition and fee hikes at universities nationwide underscores the importance of environmental issues to this generation.

In the last five years, green funds have sprouted up on dozens of campuses. The fees, ranging from $2-$5 per semester (or quarter), collect about $250,000 a year to fund energy efficiency, renewable energy and other sustainability efforts. Some fee referendums set aside a portion of the funds – about a third – for financial aid.

As many as 100 campuses levy a green fee in 20 states, raising millions for green projects across the country, according to Paul Rowland, executive director of the Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education.

“It shows a level of commitment [for sustainability] by students that exceeds that of campus leadership,” he said. “Campus leaders are people usually around my age, who are thinking how do we take care of things right now, how do we make sure the campus is functioning well?

“Students look at it, and think this is the jumping off point for the future. We’d like to use the campus as a model of what we’d like the future to look like.”

Matt St. Clair, sustainability manager for the University of California, equates the importance of sustainability to today’s college students to what Vietnam or the civil right movement symbolized for their parent’s generation.

“In the context of other student movements, often when public policy lags behind public values, students voice public values and help move policy to respond to public concerns.”

A student movement spurred the University of California leadership to adopt a campus-wide sustainability policy in 2004. Now, nearly all of the campuses have passed green fees on top of that to fund environment-focused projects. In some cases, students at campuses that already had green funds voted to increase green fees or passed new ones.

In 2005, students at UC Santa Cruz passed a referendum to double their existing green fee to $6 per quarter per student. The next year, the student body approved another self-imposed tax – this one for $3 per quarter per student – allowing the school to buy $1 million worth of renewable energy credits per year to offset the university’s energy use.

In 2008, the school administration decided to reach out to students to help fund a new student health center that would meet green building (LEED) standards that would, for example, use recycled building materials, less toxic paint, and conserve water.

“They told students that they would build the health center as a LEED green building, but the students had to come up with the money,” said Tony Bautista, who was a junior at the time.

Bautista was interested in green building and enthusiastically agreed to help write the referendum and get it passed. The measure assessed each student $5.20 per quarter, with a goal of raising $1.5 million over 10 years.

“It was really difficult, students weren’t familiar with green building much less LEED certification,” he said. “We had to go to students and get the word out about the benefits of LEED certification and why it is important for them to vote yes.”

The measure was successful, and school leaders went to the UC governing board to get a loan to construct a “green” health center, added Bautista.

Not all students embrace the idea of green fees. Students at California State University campuses in San Francisco, San Jose, and Northridge shot down measures to impose green fees, according to California State Student Association Executive Director Miles Nevin.

Explaining why the measure failed in the case of SF State University, he said, “they hadn’t given a sound justification about what money would be used for, and they didn’t do enough marketing to students prior to proposing the fee.”

While CSU campuses in Chico and San Diego have enacted green fees, the 23-campus CSU system has yet to embrace the idea. But that may be changing, Nevin said. The student association group’s environmental officer brought up the topic of green fees at a board meeting in November.

“The [environmental officer] said that this is happening throughout campuses across the country and there may be cost savings in doing this,” said Nevin.
Describing the level of interest in sustainability on CSU campuses, Nevin said that “there is a lot of momentum; it’s a hot button issue.”

Despite this, Andres Cuervo, 22, who recently graduated from UC Riverside, said students strategically wrote a green fee referendum that focused on affordability, in light of tuition and fee hikes at most public universities in California.

“We looked at case studies from other University of California campuses, we learned from their shortfalls,” Cuervo said. “We learned that the fee needed to be really low, $2.50 per quarter, 25 percent went to financial aid, the actual money used is $1.87. Affordability was the first thing.”

Fortino Morales, 22, said that students involved in the campus sustainability movement are learning from each other. Morales, a fifth year student at UC Riverside, is studying environmental science. He said he learned about green funds from his peers at the other UC campuses, and took the idea back to his own.

Now, Morales said, he sees the campus sustainability movement bringing together students from all three tiers of the state’s higher education system – UC, CSU, and community colleges – to share ideas and best practices.

“It’s really cool,” he said. “Students are leading the way, and the administration is right behind them and they start to see the value in it and start changing their ways.”