Community Colleges

OPINION: Transportation costs can block student success at community college

The financial pressure of getting to class — and back

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Be it car, bus or subway, students often overlook the cost of transportation when calculating the price of attending community college.

Commuters comprise 99 percent of all community college students, with just 28 percent of their institutions offering on-campus housing.

Excessive transportation costs can not only impair students’ academic performance but also force students to change from full-time to part-time studies so they can work. This, in turn, increases the amount of time it takes for students to graduate, if they graduate at all.

Related: Can better transportation increase diversity on college campuses?

Here in New York City, as the agency that oversees the Metropolitan Transit Authority public transit system mulls whether it will raise subway and bus fares, we in positions of leadership at colleges are reminded of the daily financial struggles that many of our commuter students face just getting to class.

I see these struggles every day at Borough of Manhattan Community College (BMCC), part of The City University of New York system in lower Manhattan, where I am vice president for student affairs.

Our more than 25,000 students commute daily, the vast majority on mass transit, from across the five boroughs to take advantage of the opportunities our institution offers. Roughly half of our students are the first in their families to attend college, and many of them struggle financially. The median annual family income of BMCC students is $28,400.

For example, one of our students majoring in criminal justice received unemployment benefits that expired in the middle of the semester. As a full-time student, she applied for the state’s 599 program to extend her benefits while earning her degree. Unfortunately, her application was denied. At a minimum, the student needed assistance to get to and from school. Our Single Stop office was able to provide her with a MetroCard and screen her for additional wrap-around services to support her continued attendance.

Meanwhile, in communities around the country that are underserved by mass transit, transportation costs can prove just as prohibitive for financially disadvantaged students who commute daily.

Related: A program helps low-income parents graduate at twice the rate of other community college students

In fact, in 2016, the American Association of Community Colleges found that the average full-time community college student spends just over $1,700 each year on transportation costs, including gas, car payments and insurance.

In high school, eligible students receive governmental assistance with transportation, books and, in many cases, food. Based on this experience, students often focus on the cost of tuition as they transition from high school to college. That’s why they tend not to itemize transportation among the costs of attending college.

Nearly 60 percent of BMCC students attend college tuition-free, thanks to federal and state aid. But costs associated with books, food, transportation and other expenses all place enormous strain on our student population. We have been able to assist hundreds of students through Single Stop, our social, legal and financial services support system, but there are potentially thousands who must choose daily between getting to class or covering other pressing expenses such as food.

BMCC’s three-year graduation rate has inched up in recent years, but it remains just below the national average of 22 percent.

Related: Study: Half or more of community college students struggle to afford food, housing

Cohort programs such as CUNY’s Accelerated Study in Associate Programs (ASAP), which as part of a broader financial-support apparatus provides its students with free MetroCards, have seen three-year graduation rates more than double. However, these programs are limited in scope and range. All community college students deserve the same access to the opportunities that colleges like ours provide.

CUNY estimates that students should count on needing at least $9,600 for personal expenses; of that amount, most students spend as much as $1,300 during a nine-month period on transportation costs alone. If MTA fares do increase, the financial burden for our students will only grow. As a 2017 policy paper from Center for an Urban Future found, one of the biggest reasons why so few CUNY community college students make it to graduation is the cost of public transportation.

Here in New York City, the mayor has made an effort to address the prohibitive cost of transportation with a new Fair Fares program that will provide half-priced MetroCards to residents already receiving public assistance from the city. But that will serve only 30,000 or so New Yorkers. The program is set to expand to individuals receiving SNAP, or federally funded nutrition assistance, at a later date. Our hope is that the program is further expanded to subsidize CUNY students as well.

This story about community college transportation costs was produced by The Hechinger Report, a nonprofit, independent news organization focused on inequality and innovation in education. Sign up for our newsletter.

Marva Craig is vice president for student affairs at Borough of Manhattan Community College, where her vision is to provide students with a holistic higher-education experience to encourage lifelong learning and responsible citizenship.

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Marva Craig

Marva Craig is vice president for student affairs at Borough of Manhattan Community College, where her vision is to provide students with a holistic higher… See Archive

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