Recognizing that many students lack safe, affordable, and reliable transportation to and from U.S. college campuses, a growing number of institutions are taking steps to address that basic need. Just 13 percent of first-year college students live on campus, and transportation costs can exceed $1,800 for the average community college student, according to data cited by The Hechinger Report.
Geographical and scheduling gaps pose additional challenges. A new map from the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation sheds light on the state of public transportation accessibility at U.S. community and technical colleges. According to the first-of-its-kind analysis, just 57 percent of community colleges have a transit stop within walking distance, but an additional 25 percent could be accessible if transit systems made low-cost changes such as extending bus routes and schedules.
Transportation gaps tend to disproportionately affect low-income students and students of color, researchers have found. And while transportation insecurity has historically received less attention than food and housing insecurity, it is “often the single thread holding together a precarious balancing act that allows the student to attend school while juggling multiple other responsibilities,” noted a study by the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill and UnidosUS.
Legislative, community efforts to meet a basic need
More policymakers and higher education leaders are taking note—and taking action—according to a column from Goldie Blumenstyk at The Chronicle of Higher Education. Two Pennsylvania legislators have introduced the bipartisan PATH to College Act in the House and Senate, which calls on the U.S. Departments of Labor and Transportation to launch competitive grants focused on public transit access at colleges.
Grants from organizations like the Kresge and Selding/Haring-Smith foundations also are fueling transportation solutions and showing the connection between student persistence and subsidized transportation. Blumenstyk highlights a new Los Angeles County Community College District program offering free transit to students, as well as a Dallas Community College District program in which college leaders partnered with the transit authority to adjust schedules and provide free transit passes to students.
In Tennessee, Chattanooga State Community College is using $35,000 in federal COVID-19 relief funding to provide free bus service for students and employees through summer 2022, according to The Hechinger Report. Several New Orleans-based colleges and universities are taking a collaborative approach, working with local economic development organizations and transit leaders to pursue regional transportation improvements.
Colleges in rural areas without any public transit system to optimize, meanwhile, are pursuing different solutions. Some provide van service, while others have established emergency grants for students facing costly car repairs. Advocates also are calling for a change to federal student-aid policies, which currently bar students from using federal financial aid funds for car purchases.
As higher education works to improve student transportation, it will be crucial for individual campuses to pinpoint their specific needs, partner with local transit authorities, and dedicate resources to pursue solutions, Blumenstyk writes.