The Backyard of Higher Education

The Backyard of Higher Education

If you take a walk through the five sprawling campuses of Rutgers University-New Brunswick, you’ll see much of what you’d expect from a world class learning institution—state-of-the-art labs and historic campus building, student centers filed with cafes and student lounges, and busy students bustling from class to class, laptops and smartphones in hand.  New Brunswick looks like the quintessential college town. That is, until, the moment you step off the campus borders.

The City of New Brunswick is one of the 20 lowest income cities in New Jersey, out of a total of 702 cities in the state. It has an average personal income of less than $15,000 and is designated as one of the fourteen high-need communities in New Jersey under the NJ Higher Education Student Assistance Authority. And yet, New Brunswick is the home of Rutgers University, an internationally ranked and fairly wealthy research institution.

The first time I traveled to the areas of New Brunswick beyond the Rutgers campus, past even George Street—the well-known, trendily urban downtown district—I was completely stunned by just how sharp the contrast between the university and the surrounding community was. The state-of-the-art buildings and luxurious student apartments suddenly gave way to rundown houses, and unkempt streets. Down on Jersey Avenue, I saw tired looking black and Latino men lined up on the street, waiting to be picked up for temporary construction jobs. Standing on the corner of Jersey Avenue, the enclosed campus of Rutgers University felt less like a school a few streets away, and more like another world altogether.

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Temporary workers waiting to be picked up for work on French Street. Photo credit: Melanie Buford

The phenomenon of top universities residing in low income cities and neighborhoods is not unique to Rutgers- New Brunswick. Rutgers’ other two main campuses, Rutgers- Newark and Rutgers-Camden are also in two very low income communities, with Camden being the lowest income city in the state of New Jersey. Moving outside of New Jersey, the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, New York University and even Columbia and Yale all also reside in low income areas.

While the idea of prestigious universities being in the middle of extremely low income communities may not seem like a necessarily bad—though certainly questionable—thing, the larger issues become apparent when you look at the relationships between many of these universities and their home cities.

Rutgers University takes up a little less than half of the City of New Brunswick. Despite the wealth that it has, as a higher education institution in New Jersey, Rutgers is exempt from paying property taxes to the city. According to New Brunswick City Administrator, Tom Loughlin, this makes it difficult for the city council to keep taxes low for city residents from year to year.

“We know in many ways it can be hard for residents to live here,” Loughlin told me, at a meeting discussing the city’s 2015 budget earlier this year. “Fifty percent of this town is tax exempt. Only fifty percent of this town is eventually holding up the whole city.”

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The Gateway Transit Village on Somerset Street, which includes the luxury Vue Apartments, was built by DEVCO in 2012.

As Rutgers continues to expand through the city, creating more untaxed property, private companies such as DEVCO are also brought in to build more shops and more student housing and apartments. As a result, more and more of the city is also taken up by housing that the majority of the low income residents of the city can’t afford. When Rutgers takes up such an integral part of the city, it’s hard not to wonder why the university cannot do more for the residents that it shares space with every day.

Along with the economic issues, the stark divide between the university and the surrounding community also creates a sharp, cultural, and social rift.

Most people looking at New Brunswick (or Philadelphia or New Haven), simply see the university. Incoming students focus on the status of Rutgers as a higher education institution, and often don’t even know about the struggles of the surrounding community. Likewise, students attending Rutgers spend most of their time within the campus, problematically regarding the rest of the city as the “ghetto,” and not thinking much else of it, unless they’re worried about their safety.

The reality of New Brunswick becomes a shadowy underbelly, a sort of open secret that nobody really talks about.  Instead of asking why the community around us is so starkly different, we simply pretend it doesn’t truly exist.

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