Limited public transit keeps some college students from graduating. Here's how schools can help

·5 min read

Corrections & clarifications: A prior version of this story misstated Tashika Griffith’s title. She is the provost of St. Petersburg College's Clearwater campus.

It's only back-to-school season for college students if they can get to their campuses.

About 43% of community and technical colleges' main campuses in the United States are more than a half mile away from a public transit stop, according to research from the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation. Though this distance is short by vehicle, it can be a barrier to already time-pressed and low-income students pursuing the increased earnings a degree can offer. 

Abigail Seldin, CEO of the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, a family foundation that researches college access, said local leaders could close these gaps, oftentimes by simply extending a route or tweaking a schedule. The group's original research focused on the main campuses of these colleges, but these institutions often have satellite branches that don't always show up on maps.

In this stock photo, a college student waits at a public transit stop. About one in four community or technical college campuses in Florida aren't accessible via public transit, according to new research from the Seldin Haring-Smith Foundation.
In this stock photo, a college student waits at a public transit stop. About one in four community or technical college campuses in Florida aren't accessible via public transit, according to new research from the Seldin Haring-Smith Foundation.

The foundation is mapping by hand public community and technical colleges and their branch campuses, against local transit coverage areas. The researchers, Seldin, Ellie Bruecker and Matthew Crespi, expect to analyze more than 3,000 campus locations nationally and release the results on a state-by-state basis on Google Maps.

The foundation shared exclusively its analysis of roughly 200 campuses in Florida and their proximity to public transit stops with USA TODAY. Florida is instructive because of the size of the state and its population. About 640,000 students were enrolled in the Florida College System, which primarily awards associate degrees, in the 2020-21 fiscal year. The state identified about 60% of those students as people of color.

"Community and technical colleges are rightly held up as being motors of economic development," Seldin said. "If students can't get to that essential in-person training, that's a failure at a community level."

How much does transit cost for students?

Community colleges are open access institutions, which means they accept almost all students. That also means their student demographics tend to be students from low-income backgrounds who can’t afford or were unprepared academically for more selective universities.

Owning a car can be expensive for many who are also trying to improve their financial outlook. The foundation estimated it costs students about $ 1,840 a year to pay for transportation. The average cost of a semester at community college is about $ 1,865 a semester, and that average is $2,580 for Florida residents attending an in-state institution, according to data from the Education Data Initiative. Though gas prices are falling, they're still higher at $3.99-a-gallon on average compared with last year's price of $3.18.

Who attends community college?

The average community college student doesn’t resemble the traditional perception of a college student.

They’re often not fresh out of high school, and instead the average age is 27, according to the American Association of Community Colleges. Oftentimes, they may already have a family or other loved ones who rely on them. And they don’t live on campus: Most community or technical colleges don’t offer residential housing.

Community college enrollment has been falling since the start of the pandemic. According to the National Student Clearinghouse, these institutions had 4.1 million undergraduates in spring 2022, which is down from nearly 5 million students in spring 2020.

What happens if students don't have transportation?

In Florida, students near the coasts or urban areas are more likely to benefit from public transportation infrastructure, according to the report. But the foundation’s map shows inland and rural areas lack the same access to public transit.

Larry Moore, director of Florida Panhandle Technical College, said his institution isn’t easily accessible via public transit.

“It creates a barrier for individuals who would like to attend,” Moore said.

Moore said providing public transportation infrastructure to his rural school, which primarily offers workforce training, would be a challenge. Florida Panhandle Technical College is in Chipley, Florida, a town of about 3,000 that is miles away from any major city. Students who are in high school and taking college classes, known as dual enrollment, get bussed by the local school district to the institution, Moore said. Still, Florida is more accessible than some other states. In North Carolina, only about half of campuses are within walking distance to public transit stops.

What can colleges do to help students?

Some universities have worked with local transit agencies to better sync their course start times with the local bus schedule. That was the case at St. Petersburg College, an institution that primarily awards two-year degrees with multiple campuses through St. Petersburg and Pinellas county in Florida. Students there can ride the local buses for free by showing their student identification.

St. Petersburg College in Florida worked closely with the local bus system to help students access the campus via public transit. Students at the college also ride the bus free of charge.
St. Petersburg College in Florida worked closely with the local bus system to help students access the campus via public transit. Students at the college also ride the bus free of charge.

Prior to the pandemic, about 100,000 rides every month involved students, said Brad Miller, CEO of the Pinellas Suncoast Transit Authority, the agency that provides bus service in Pinellas County.

“It doesn’t cost me as the public transit provider any more money if I just fill 10 vacant seats on the bus with college students that otherwise wasn’t going to be full,” Miller said.

A primary goal of any purpose of any college should be to make sure as many students who want an education can access it, despite any barriers they might encounter, said Tashika Griffith, provost of St. Petersburg College’s Clearwater campus.

Access to colleges via public transit doesn’t just benefit students who can’t afford a car, she said. It also helps students with mobility issues who may be physically incapable of driving.

“We are the college of the community, and we have to engage the community where they are,” Griffith said. “It’s how we stay relevant as an institution. We have to engage our customers just as any other business.”

This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Public transit keeps some college students from degrees