A tax on college tuition? It's a frightening thought for those already struggling to raise money for constantly escalating tuition fees.

Nevertheless, in a move that has significance for colleges and universities all over the nation, the Evanston, Ill., City Council has voted 10-8 to impose just such a tax. The move would affect students attending Northwestern University, Kendall College, Garret Evangelical Theological Seminary and Seabury-Western Theological Seminary.The city hopes to gain $500,000 by charging each student at the schools $15 per quarter or semester, depending on how a school's academic year is structured. It's a bad - very bad - idea!

City officials say the move is intended to offset the cost of city services provided to the colleges, which are exempt from property taxes. Northwestern's 242-acre campus covers about 5 percent of the city. While Northwestern does provide its own security force, city police do provide occasional assistance and the city is responsible for fire protection.

In defense, Northwestern officials argue that students and some 500,000 annual visitors to the campus pump millions of dollars into the city economy each year while providing a number of cultural benefits as well.

And, they argue, the 10,800 students attending Northwestern would be hard pressed to come up with the additional $60 annual assessment on top of the $13,725 yearly tuition. More than half the students already receive extensive financial aid just to meet the stiff tuition costs.

Utah, fortunately, is not likely to face this problem any time soon as the kinds of taxes cities and counties can impose are regulated by the Legislature. But the Evanston decision could set an undesirable precedent.

And, it is an indicator of the extent local governments, desperate for revenue and caught between contradictory citizen demands for improved services and calls for tax restraint, are willing to stoop. Nothing appears sacred any longer.

It is common knowledge that many cities are hard pressed financially. And, it is likely that many, if not the majority, will be forced to hike taxes to solve their financial dilemmas.

But caution is needed, the kind of caution that results in cool deliberation and level-headed decision making. Too many cities have already found that nothing is accomplished if in the solution of one problem, others of equal significance and complexity are created.