Getting to #RealCollege: Mapping Transit Infrastructure for Students

By: Ellie Bruecker, Senior Research Associate at SHSF

Should a student need a car to get to community college? For students at the Indiana County Technology Center (ICTC), situated on the outskirts of Indiana, Pennsylvania, it seems they do.

One route runs southeast of campus to the regional airport; another runs southwest of campus with a stop at a nearby golf course. But neither route runs directly to the college, and the nearest bus stop is just under one mile away, located in a mostly residential neighborhood on a route clearly designed to get people from where they live to the center of town and back again. A highway runs between the bus stop and the school, and though traffic is usually light, there are no sidewalks.

For a student without a car, attending ICTC requires a one-mile walk from that bus stop. This is surely a challenge for all students, but practically impossible for students with wheelchairs, crutches, or strollers. But for the cost of a few extra minutes per bus trip, ICTC could be on the bus line, accessible to transit-dependent citizens in the area.

For #RealCollege students juggling family, work, and school commitments, transportation is a critical component of community college access and affordability. Community college faculty often note that their students are “one flat tire away from dropping out.”

At this moment of national reckoning on infrastructure priorities, our team at the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation (SHSF) analyzed transportation accessibility at America’s community and technical colleges.

First, the good news: our analysis found that 57% of community and technical college main campuses have a transit stop within walking distance. Nearly half of these colleges have transit stops within 0.2 miles, often transit that stops right on campus.

But for 37% of these schools, the nearest transit stop is more than 1 mile away, including approximately 250 institutions located in areas with no existing public transit infrastructure. For students at these colleges, car ownership can be a prerequisite for success.

Importantly, for the one in four colleges with transit nearby (but no stop within walking distance) solutions are possible. By extending existing public transit infrastructure, we can ensure that more than 80% of community and technical colleges in the U.S. are accessible.

Providing resources for communities to extend or reroute lines, create shuttle services, or add stops can create opportunities for prospective students who are transit-dependent. In addition to serving current students, transit access could help students who are considering college to get there.

But we have to remember that transit infrastructure alone isn’t enough to meaningfully help some students. Even at institutions with stops on campus, the cost of transit passes is a barrier for many students. Institutions like Montgomery College and Everett Community College provide subsidized transit passes for their students, but this approach is far from universal and some institutions are able to subsidize more than others.

In Connecticut, Governor Lamont’s office has proposed the creation of the CTPass program to create affordable transit passes for college students at private institutions. Just like nearby transit stops, affordable transit passes can make enrollment possible for prospective low-income students who would otherwise struggle to pay.

Similarly, students cannot benefit from public transit unless the routes and schedules match their realities. The #RealCollege students who are working and parenting need schedules and routes that connect with residential areas, schools and childcare, and business districts.

It is also critical that transit schedules are aligned with class schedules. For example, hourly service that gives students the choice of arriving 45 minutes early or 15 minutes late to class each day won’t work for students already battling “time poverty” as they balance school, work, and family.