High gas prices straining student finances

College students, especially those with long commutes, are voicing concerns about rising gas prices, and the cost of traveling to their campuses, internships, and jobs. Inflation, combined with fallout from Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, has driven up prices at the pump: according to AAA, gas in the U.S. now averages more than $4 per gallon, compared with less than $3 a year ago. In certain parts of California, gas costs are hovering around $6 per gallon.

Higher ed leaders say the added expenses are jeopardizing students’ chance of graduation at a time when enrollment is already declining. “This is unprecedented, historically,” Dr. Tatiana Melguizo, a professor at the University of Southern California (USC) who studies the economics of higher education, told Diverse Issues in Higher Education. Melguizo adds that students, especially those with children, will need to work more to cover their expenses, “and as a result they will engage less in college.”

Students feeling the pinch

Juggling school with the number of work hours needed to cover rising gas costs is proving challenging, students say. “As a full time student, I don’t have that much time to work,” Kadie Sloan, a student at Texas-based Lamar University, says, adding that “it’s hard to afford gas to even get to my job.”

“I have to constantly worry about putting in gas and spending my savings,” echoes Alyssa Ciarleglio, a full-time commuter student at Quinnipiac University. “When my money runs out, I will have no way to get onto campus.” Dorian Houssou, a first-year student at the University of Maryland, says his gas costs have nearly doubled. The university shuttles and buses don’t align with his schedule, so instead he is covering gas expenses with money that he would otherwise use to eat and pay rent.

Some students are not only wondering how they will afford to get to and from campus but also reconsidering internships and other learning experiences that require a commute but won’t bring in much income. Describing how high gas prices are affecting his career exploration, Isaiah Medina, another Lamar student, said, “I was doing the math last week and was like, ‘…I would be spending around $160 on gas alone’” to get to and from his planned internship in Odessa.

Rural communities especially hard-hit

Students, faculty, and staff in rural areas—for instance, those at Tribal Colleges and Universities—have been “severely impacted,” Diverse Issues reports. At Keweenaw Bay Ojibwa Community College (KBOCC), a Michigan-based TCU, many community members have commutes exceeding 20 miles, and virtually no access to public transportation or taxis. Due to the area’s harsh winters, they also tend to have larger gas-guzzling vehicles.

“It’s hard enough to buy your books let alone worry about paying for gas to get to class,” said Lori Ann Sherman, KBOCC’s president. The university has launched a ride-sharing program for faculty and staff, and students receive a 16-cent-per-gallon discount at gas stations on the reservation.

Colleges step up support

Other TCUs are providing students with gas gift cards, and some are using online courses to help reduce the need for students to commute to campus. “Gas prices will be a part of our calculation in terms of what we offer next fall,” says Dr. Charles “Monty” Roessel, president of the Arizona-based TCU Diné College.

Some colleges are getting creative to rapidly reduce students’ financial strain. Metropolitan Community College in Kansas City, Missouri, recently started providing students with free breakfast. Other community colleges, meanwhile, are reducing textbook costs and securing public transit discounts.

“The students are overwhelmed, surviving, trying to stay afloat. If we lose them and don’t do something right now, students aren’t going to come back,” USC’s Melguizo says.

Topics in this story
, ,

Next Up

Competitive colleges post record-low acceptance rates as regional schools struggle to fill seats

Highly selective schools are announcing record application numbers—and strikingly low acceptance rates—at a time when many smaller regional institutions are still scrambling to fill classes and re-engage students.