How colleges and local governments can safely bring students back to campus

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Back in 2020, Cardi B made headlines when she spoke with then-candidate Joe Biden about an often-overlooked barrier to college success: the cost of transportation. The Grammy award-winning rapper explained that when she was a student at the Borough of Manhattan Community College, she often had to choose between buying a Metrocard (New York City’s transit pass) and eating lunch. Having to make this choice over and over again eventually pushed Cardi B out of college and stopped her from earning a degree.

As the spring semester begins, millions of students across the country have been making the same choice: wrestling with whether to buy a bus fare, put gas in their car, pay rent, or feed themselves. Recent research from the Seldin Haring Smith Foundation found that community college students spend nearly $2,000 per year on transit costs. Just as troublingly, fewer than six in 10 primary community college campuses are within half a mile of a public transit stop, despite the fact that nearly all community college students live off campus. And students themselves recognize this as an issue: survey data from the emergency aid platform Edquity indicates that transportation is among the most frequently cited causes of basic needs insecurity among students, after housing.

All this is taking place against a backdrop of a pandemic and economic crisis that have not only disrupted students’ educations, but upended their lives, with nearly three in five having trouble meeting their basic needs, like safe, stable housing and healthy, affordable food. The challenges of remote learning, coupled with the economic and public health effects of the pandemic, have caused college enrollments to plummet. According to FAFSA and other data, Black and Latino students, as well as those from low-income households, have been especially hard hit. And these groups were already experiencing educational and financial hardship before the pandemic: community college enrollment among Black and Latino students fell 19 and 16 percentage points respectively, from fall 2019 to fall 2020.

In short, the costs of transportation, from car insurance to public transit fares, impose an additional financial burden that can often be the difference between whether students return to college or not. As we look to the coming semester, it is essential that colleges and local governments work together to help bring students back to campus — because doing so can make a profound difference on students’ likelihood of completing their degree.

There is strong evidence that providing free transportation can help students succeed. In New York City, the CUNY Accelerated Study in Associate Programs, which has helped double graduation rates, includes free unlimited-ride MetroCards for students. Another study, conducted at a Los Angeles-area community college by The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice, found that offering students discounted transportation fares increased the likelihood that they would stay enrolled, earn credits and graduate. This kind of transportation assistance liberates students from the fear of having to skip meals or fall behind on rent simply for traveling to and from campus.

The American Rescue Plan, signed into law last year, makes it easier than ever to help put students on the path to degree completion. By providing $130 billion dollars in aid directly to city, county, and tribal governments, local authorities have broad discretion in how they use their funding, including whether or not to subsidize public transportation for college students. A movement is already underway in cities like Los Angeles, which recently launched a program to allow community college students to ride public transportation for free, a benefit that could be extended to all low-income riders in the future. Students mobilized by the nonprofit organization Rise—where one of us serves as CEO—sent hundreds of messages of support to LA Metro as they deliberated this change for students. Eliminating transit fares could save college students up to $1,200 annually, money that could go instead toward meeting their basic food and housing needs.

Another source of assistance that can be used to reduce students’ transit costs is the U.S. Department of Education’s Higher Education Emergency Relief Fund (HEERF), which recently released nearly $200 million more to support students with the greatest unmet need. Colleges and universities can use this aid to help cover any costs related to students’ attendance, including transportation fees. They can also conduct outreach to students who may have put their education on hold during the pandemic, and help them return to campuses as they reopen. Help might also be on the way from Congress: a bipartisan bill known as the PATH to College Act — which inspired a $10 billion pilot program in the Build Back Better Act — would provide grants to colleges and public transit providers to expand transportation access and options to community college students.

Even colleges in suburban or rural areas that lack robust public transportation can help students get to campus affordably. Santa Fe College in Gainesville, Fla., launched a free shuttle service in 2019 after one rural student suggested the idea. Amarillo College in Texas has partnered with Amarillo City Transit to offer free bus rides to students until at least the summer of 2023. These kinds of creative partnerships can be a win-win for both colleges and transportation agencies by boosting enrollment and overall ridership.

The setbacks faced by students during the pandemic have been devastating, but they do not need to be permanent. Through collaboration between colleges, local governments, and transportation agencies, institutions of higher education can not only reopen their doors to students, but help them return to campuses safely and affordably. No student should have to choose between their future and a bus fare, between paying tuition and putting fuel in their car. By working together, local policymakers and institutional leaders can ensure that no student has to make that choice. 

Mark Huelsman is the Director of Policy & Advocacy at The Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice. Max Lubin is CEO of Rise, Inc. and a former Obama Administration appointee at the U.S. Department of Education.

Tags college students Joe Biden transportation insecurity

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