Reducing college students’ transportation costs to boost retention

Several universities and community colleges across the country are working to support students’ basic transportation needs by offering low-cost public transit to college campuses otherwise out of reach to commuter students. Only 15.6% of undergraduate students in the U.S. lived on campus in the 2015-16 academic year, according to data from Robert Kelchen, professor of higher education at the University of Tennessee. Most college students commute to campus, and some are just “one flat tire away from dropping out,” says Abigail SeIdin, co-founder of the Civic Mapping Initiative, which charts the proximity of public transit stops to public services.

Investing in greater transportation access can have a dramatic impact on student retention and address key equity issues, researchers at the Civic Mapping Initiative say. A 2021 study by the Initiative found that nationwide, just 57% of community colleges are within walking distance of a transit stop, and an additional 25% could be made accessible by making low-cost investments in extending bus routes.

Related:Transportation access top of mind for campus leaders >

“This is a basic need,” Heather Brandt, a psychology student and student chancellor at the City College of San Francisco, tells CalMatters. “It’s an easier issue to solve than some of the other issues that exist, like maybe housing, which require more long-term solutions.”

Broadening transportation access

Colleges across the country, including those in California, Virginia, and the District of Columbia, are building coalitions with businesses and public transit organizations to make higher education more accessible. Out of the 70 community and technical colleges surveyed in Virginia by the Civic Mapping Initiative, 24 were over half a mile away from a transit stop, and seven were less than five miles away from a transit line but not connected to it, the Virginia Mercury reports.

To make campuses more accessible, Virginia community colleges are working with transit agencies and raising funds to help cover students’ transportation costs. The Virginia Department of Rail and Public Transportation has also collaborated with campuses across the commonwealth to create the Virginia Breeze Bus Lines, an intercity bus service that provides accessible, affordable transportation to underserved communities.

Unlike other states, the vast majority (93%) of California community and trade colleges have a transit stop half a mile away from campus. To make commuting more affordable, 75 of the state’s 116 community colleges offer reduced or free transit programs for their students, CalMatters reports. The Universal College Student Transit Pass (U-Pass) also offers fare discounts, free transit passes, and unlimited rides on all Metro services at participating schools in Los Angeles County.

A study by the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University found that students who received U-Pass at LA County’s Rio Hondo College were 17% more likely to attain credentials and 27% more likely to earn an associate degree than those who didn’t receive the passes.

Making Georgetown campuses more accessible

To provide more support for students using mass transit, Georgetown launched the Hoya Transit Pilot Program, which provides Georgetown undergraduate and graduate students with a $100 credit per semester to be applied to a SmarTrip account for transit passes or standard pay-as-you-go transit. The program will seek student feedback to inform university public transportation options and offerings.

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