• Confessions of a Community College Dean

    In which a veteran of cultural studies seminars in the 1990s moves into academic administration and finds himself a married suburban father of two. Foucault, plus lawn care.

Title

‘1 Flat Tire Away’

Public transportation and college access.

September 14, 2022

“Students are one flat tire away from dropping out of school.” —Abigail Seldin

Yes, they are. It’s a complicated issue.

When I TAed at Rutgers, I didn’t worry much about how students got to class. Since I mostly taught first-year students, they generally lived on campus or close to it, and Rutgers has a large internal bus system. The major transportation issue was parking. For the most part, I could give quizzes in the first few minutes of class and not have to worry about folks showing up late.

When I got to DeVry, that changed. The campus was on a congested highway—what some urban planners call a “stroad”—and traffic could be a nightmare. Even with the best of intentions, some students couldn’t make it on time. More annoyingly, I had classes that ran until 1:50, but the last bus for the afternoon left campus at 1:30, so a few students would slink out early. I hadn’t seen that before, and it forced some adjustments to how I used class time. Other students drove, but their cars (or their rides) were often unreliable. The rigorous attendance policies that faculty were encouraged to use often flew in the face of student circumstances.

The “student basic needs” movement has made great strides since then. Community colleges in particular have been more intentional about addressing nonacademic barriers to student success like food, housing and transportation. The ASAP program at CUNY got the results it did in part because it provided students with subway passes. When a college in Ohio decided to replicate ASAP there, it used gas cards instead. It got good results—until the money ran out.

For those of us who don’t have local subways at our disposal, buses are typically the most relevant public transit option. Working with them can be more complicated than one might guess.

For example, buses usually keep two schedules: one for weekdays and the other for weekends and holidays. If student demand were consistent across weekdays, that wouldn’t be a problem. But student demand tends to fluctuate during the week, often peaking in the first part of the week and tailing off as the week goes on. That makes it hard to hit the levels of overall ridership needed to sustain a route. Summers compound the issue, due both to reduced demand and (often) to changed class schedules. Reaching a critical mass of riders may be easy on a Tuesday in October but much harder on a Thursday in July.

Even allowing for the issues around critical mass of ridership, access to stops can be an issue. A few years ago, I decided to see how long it would take me to get to campus without driving. Getting to the first stop would be the hardest part, but even after that, we’re looking at hours in each direction. Most suburbs simply weren’t built with public transportation in mind. Even with a willingness to look at buses, putting enough stops in enough places (and generating enough ridership at each to justify it) can be a problem. People live too far apart.

Perversely, COVID may have mitigated the issue somewhat. Colleges were forced to develop remote capabilities, whether they wanted to or not. The smarter ones have made a point of learning lessons from quarantine that they can carry forward as (I hope) COVID fades away. Expanded online and remote options can mitigate short-term transportation issues, particularly when colleges have HyFlex capability at scale. But that doesn’t work for hands-on programs or clinicals, and the students who are relegated to remote delivery may feel like they’re being treated as second-class. If we want a fully inclusive campus environment, we need to ensure that students can actually get to campus.

For a while, colleges mitigated transportation issues by opening branch campuses and off-campus locations, but that trend has largely stalled or even reversed. With enrollment drops and the growth of online and remote options, it’s harder to get critical mass at multiple locations than it once was, making the overhead harder to justify.

The key point about transportation is just how local it is. Bicycles work well in some settings, but they aren’t great in the Northeast in February. I’ve had the experience of seeing public bus access to a location get delayed because the building was on a private road, and the other tenants were concerned that buses would accelerate the aging of the pavement. You can’t make this stuff up.

Still, I’m glad to see the issue of public transportation as a student success issue get some attention. Public transportation is much more than that, of course, but to the extent that new visibility helps agreements gain momentum, I’m all for it. Education is too important to sacrifice to car trouble.

Share Article

Read more by

Matt Reed

Back to Top