Finding a Ride

For some two-year institutions, public and mass transportation options, or the lack thereof, can be the difference in whether a student attends and stays in college.

September 15, 2016
 
New Jersey Transit bus

For many students at two-year institutions across the country, regardless of whether they're in a rural or more urban setting, transportation can be a significant barrier. Extending bus lines, buying shuttles and partnering with ride-sharing services are just some of the solutions community college leaders are looking at when it comes to getting their students on campus.

When Patricia Gentile arrived as president of North Shore Community College three years ago, she was surprised to find that there was no public transportation that reached the campus. North Shore, which is located north of the Boston metropolitan area, has three separate locations that serve about 7,000 students. The public transportation lines that travel through densely populated areas stop about four miles from one of the campus’s locations.

"We did a survey of students, and they said they pretty much arrange which campuses they're using and the times of their classes based off when they can get there, so transportation has a big impact," Gentile said, adding that the Danvers campus holds the college's signature and most in-demand health service programs.

So the college studied the demographics of the area and worked with a transportation consultant to examine where students lived and commuted in an effort to try to get a bus route extended -- it stopped at a shopping center about five miles away.

But in order to get a bus line extension, the college had to know its potential ridership.

"It became a chicken and egg problem, because you don't know your ridership because you don't have a bus line," she said. "And you can't have a bus line because you don't know your ridership."

So Gentile and other North Shore officials decided to reach out to the ride-sharing service Uber to cover the gap in transportation between the shopping mall five miles away and the campus.

"Uber has been marketing the North Shore, and they've been building drivers in the area by extending out from Boston," Gentile said, adding that the company put together an app to collect data on students using the service so the college can know its ridership.

Meanwhile, the college is subsidizing Uber rides for students who use the app to travel between the mall stop and the campus. So far, since the start of this school year, 76 students have downloaded the promotional code from North Shore for the subsidized ride and eight people have taken a total of 16 trips.

Gentile said the college set aside $40,000 to cover the subsidized rides, which is far less than the $100,000 a year they estimate for potentially using shuttles instead.

For students attending community colleges in more rural areas, transportation has always been a bit of an issue.

On average rural students will travel 52 miles round-trip to attend college, said Randy Smith, president of the Rural Community College Alliance.

"There is no public transportation, for the most part," he said. "Some rural communities will have a local van service, but trying to get public transportation doesn't exist in a community of 8,000 or 10,000 people."

In that situation, it's not uncommon for faculty to see attendance issues if a car breaks down or if a ride from a friend falls apart. Changes in who gets to drive a family vehicle to work may determine whether or not a student drops out, he said.

Some colleges will choose to run their own shuttle service, which can be cheaper when they're transporting a few students each day, he said, adding that others may try to build partnerships with local nonprofit agencies like the United Way that often have shuttle services for the elderly.

"A lot of individual colleges try to find ways to solve this effectively and as cost-efficiently as possible," Smith said. "And some colleges don't have anything and students are kind of on their own."

At New Jersey's suburban Brookdale Community College, faculty and administrators successfully lobbied county administrators and New Jersey Transit for three bus routes connecting the campus and its centers to students. The lines were adjusted so that they can continue service in the evening and on weekends.

"Because the buses are more frequent, students have more of an opportunity to be on time to class or take a class earlier or later," said Oly Malpica Proctor, associate professor of math at Brookdale, who helped with establishing the bus lines. "We had to get into the mentality of taking public transportation, because we don't think about it … we're a suburb. We drive everywhere, so we had to bring transportation to the conversation."

NJTransit worked with the college and examined class times to create a bus timetable that would accommodate students.

But not every college has had success with attempts to extend public transportation to their campuses. Officials at Mt. Hood Community College in Portland, Ore., learned recently that a proposed rapid-bus route to the campus was on the chopping block because of limited funding. The proposal would have connected Portland State University and Portland Community College through a route that ended at Mt. Hood CC.

"For many of our students in the east county area, it can take anywhere from an hour to two hours to actually get out to the college," said Debra Derr, president of Mt. Hood. "We're not unique when it comes to community colleges. For our students, within the context of the Portland metropolitan area, housing is far less expensive in our district … we're seeing a large migration of individuals living in poverty and moving into our district."

Mt. Hood's demographics are shifting to include more low-income, first-generation students, who often don't own a car and rely on mass transit to travel anywhere, she said.

"The impact is not just on our enrollment, it's on our workforce," she said. "Our business and industry partners are communicating to us the need for a skilled workforce. So how do people get skills and go to work when the frequency and bus lines have not been updated to address the education and training needs of these counties?"

Derr said she's in a similar position the officials at North Shore were in when trying to establish a new route -- proving that the ridership is there despite not having the transit available to study that ridership.

Eliminating the stretch of rapid-bus transit from a transit center to the college would reduce the project's cost by $24 million. The entire project, which would include widening roads for dedicated bus lanes and upgrading streetlight technology, is expected to cost up to $200 million, according to The Oregonian.

It wouldn't be the first time that Mt. Hood has been cut off from public transportation, though, Derr said, adding that 30 years ago a proposed mass transit line was planned to reach the college, but back then the money wasn't available, either. She doesn't want to see the college have to wait another 20 or 30 years before the issue is addressed.

"Portland overall is just an amazing place for urban planning and for mass transit, but because we are located in the east part of Portland metropolitan area, sometimes we get left out or not prioritized," Derr said. "But this isn't just a Mt. Hood issue. Getting students to and from school and to and from work is a challenge, and if we really want to look at the big picture of economic vitality, we have to look at the issue of transportation."

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