Lack of Transportation Hinders Community College Students
Note: This story was updated to clarify the funding sources for the Harper College ride-share program.
ESSEX, Md. — Monica Momoh, a freshman at the Community College of Baltimore County in Maryland, doesn’t cry easily. But one day a few weeks ago, she found herself sobbing outside a classroom.
Momoh, 25, describes herself as “happy-go-lucky,” but when she temporarily lost the use of her car and had no way to easily get back and forth to school, she was beside herself. She’d scraped money together for a ride-share before class but now had to get home, 8 miles away.
Luckily, a woman she didn’t know saw her weeping in the hall and handed her a card for the student outreach services.
“When I didn’t have a car, it really broke me,” Momoh said in an interview. “The car was my lifeline.”
The first day she sought help, she got a bus pass from the school. But taking the bus forced her to walk 40 minutes from the bus stop to her home — in a downpour, on a leg she injured in a car crash last winter that still gives her problems.
On the second day, the school gave her a few vouchers for a ride-sharing service. It was a temporary solution, but enough to tide her over to get to classes until she regained the use of the car a few weeks later.
“The area I live in is kind of remote,” said Momoh, a psychology major. The lack of a car, she added, “did discourage me from going to school.”
A dearth of transportation options is a major barrier for students with low incomes who are pursuing higher education, especially those attending community colleges in rural areas. In many cases, logistical challenges, rather than academic ones, prevent students from earning a degree.
Only 57% of community college main campuses in the United States have transit stops within walking distance, defined as a quarter mile or less, and many rural campuses have no public transportation access at all, according to a 2021 research brief by the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on equitable access to public services.
Another 25% of the campuses could be made transit accessible with relatively low-cost improvements such as extending bus lines.
But a shortage of public bus drivers in the wake of the pandemic has made even small route extensions problematic in many areas of the country, as Stateline has reported.
Even for community colleges that are accessible by public transit, such as the Community College of Baltimore County campus in Essex, syncing up bus routes with where students live or with class schedules can be a challenge, said Abigail Seldin, co-founder of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation.
The lack of attention to bus routes and schedules often leaves students with long distances to navigate on foot.
“In a lot of places, we are talking about the last-mile coverage,” Seldin said. “They [students] are one flat tire away from dropping out. They may be one well-placed bus stop from graduation.”
The cost of transportation also can be a challenge for community college students from families with low incomes. The College Board estimates that during the 2021-22 school year, students attending public two-year schools spent an average of $1,840 on transportation, nearly half of the $3,800 they spent on tuition and fees.
A recent report by the University of North Carolina School of Law and UnidosUS, a civil rights and advocacy group, pegged transportation difficulties, along with an aversion to taking on debt, as the main reason Hispanic students lag behind White and Asian people in completing college.
“Transportation is often the single thread holding together a precarious balancing act that allows the student to attend school while juggling multiple other responsibilities,” the report said. “Because transportation cuts across responsibilities related to work, school, and home, when that thread is broken, everything can unravel.”
Students interviewed by the researchers talked about the stress of having to cobble together carpools, rides, public transportation and walks to make it to class and work — sometimes multiple jobs — on time.
Prince Bahadur, 19, whose family immigrated to the United States from India in 2016 when he was a freshman in high school, is the student government association president at Harper College, a community college in Chicago’s northwest suburbs. But that lofty position doesn’t make him immune from transportation troubles.
Without a driver’s license, Bahadur relies on public transportation or friends to get to campus, he said in an interview. He uses a ride-sharing discount the college provides when he can’t catch a ride with friends.
His home — where he lives with his truck driver dad, his retail worker mom and a younger brother — is only about 7 miles from the campus, but the bus route would take him an hour and a half, he said. The ride-share passes he gets from the school cut the cost of a ride by $10, from about $16 to $6, but he only gets to use the discount for four rides a month.
Another option is a bike-share program, also discounted by the college. But that won’t work in Illinois winters. “There would be a lot of skidding going on,” he said, chuckling.
Christopher Maxwell, associate dean of students at Harper College, said the ride-share subsidy program launched just last month at the beginning of the semester. Invitations to participate were sent to the approximately 10,000 undergraduates and about 400 have enrolled so far. Since then, he said, 60% of those enrolled have used the rides at least once.
Maxwell said a survey of students showed transportation was a top barrier to attendance.
“Students don’t have enough access in their life to get transportation to Harper College,” he said, adding that once word gets around about the program, he expects participation to increase. The program is funded through surplus college funds and a foundation that raises money for the college, he said.
Subsidizing ride-share or public transit programs are only two ways that community colleges have tried to ease the transportation problem.
The Los Angeles Community College District got a $1 million federal grant to extend free rides on the LA Metro for students for the 2022-23 academic year. The one-time grant also applies to some ancillary transportation networks around the county.
Chattanooga State Community College in Tennessee used pandemic emergency relief funds last year to pay for free bus transportation for students. When those funds ran out, the school decided to try to continue the program with different dollars, said Amanda Bennett, vice president for student affairs.
“We are using philanthropic funds to continue this service,” she said in a phone interview. “It is a free program and universal and destigmatizes the use of this service. Before, students could go and get a bus pass, but it would self-stigmatize them.
“For students who rely on it, it absolutely makes the difference between whether they can continue their education,” Bennett said of the program, which she said costs only $15,000 at the small school.
Other schools have tried subsidies, dedicated buses that link with existing public transit, or bike and scooter terminals.
California state lawmakers approved a bill this year that would have provided free transportation for all public and community college students. But last month, Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed the legislation, saying the projected $115 million annual cost was too high.
“Many of California's transit agencies provide reduced or free transit for certain populations, including students,” Newsom said in his veto message. “While I agree with the intent of this bill to supplement and expand those existing programs, the bill requires the creation of a new grant program that was not funded in the budget.”
California Assemblymember Chris Holden, a Democrat who introduced the bill this year, said he would try again.
The situation also has come to the attention of federal lawmakers. Pennsylvania U.S. Sen. Bob Casey and U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb, both Democrats, have proposed issuing federal grants to mass transit agencies to add transit stops closer to campuses. Their bills are still awaiting consideration.