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A better quality of life for New Orleans students

Education

Last fall Kresge’s Education Program awarded $1.2 million in grants to help colleges and transit agencies identify, address and evaluate transportation solutions for students. Dillard University received a planning grant to lead a partnership of transit agencies and fellow New Orleans-based colleges, Delgado Community College and the University of New Orleans. Together, the partners are identifying low-cost interventions for immediate action and long-term transit infrastructure recommendations. In this guest commentary, college representatives discuss how they are shaping transit solutions for students throughout the region. 

By Jeff Benjamin, Tamika Duplessis and Tara Tolford

New Orleans is well known for its world-renowned music, food, creativity and culture. Our city is also a national hub for higher education and is home to many high-value, low-cost public universities and several notable HBCUs.

Our students come from around the globe, but many also reside in the metro area, often living at home and commuting to campus to keep costs down in a city where housing prices have risen dramatically. Nineteen percent of New Orleans households lack access to a vehicle, making transit connections critical. Our current transit system connects most of the area’s campuses to downtown, but not to neighborhoods where most students live throughout the region.

Our campuses are walkable and bikeable. All feature pathways and amenities like new bike racks and repair stations but lack network connections to surrounding neighborhoods. To address these regional challenges, our institutions – Dillard University, the University of New Orleans (UNO) and Delgado Community College –  formed a partnership to tackle these systemic barriers.

Each campus faces unique challenges. At Dillard, a private HBCU where most students receive financial aid, half of students live on campus, but many connect to other campuses in the region for consortium programs, off-site housing and jobs.  At UNO, a public “commuter” school with a strong regional draw, nearly half of undergraduates live in neighboring Jefferson parish where transit connections are limited, costly and time-consuming. At Delgado, the college’s six campuses present major transit challenges for students, many of whom attend classes at multiple sites. Others must take courses at specific sites because of the technical or professional programs offered. While the main campus is centrally located, some satellite campuses are difficult to access without a car.

Our institutions have spent time and money on efforts to develop private shuttle services to address these needs. But we know there is an opportunity to coordinate across campuses and meet students’ needs more efficiently. We recognize there is a mismatch between where our students are and where transit will take them. These regional challenges demand a regional response.

To address these challenges, we completed our first spatial analysis of student populations to better understand where our students live relative to the campuses they attend, and how that relates to transit, walking, and bicycling access, particularly for students living with low incomes who are most likely to need additional support.

We are also elevating higher education within New Links, a concurrent regional transit network redesign process.  This sparked the convening of two regional higher education stakeholder meetings hosted by Greater New Orleans, Inc., a regional economic development organization.  The meetings convened representatives from each college and university in the region with transit agency and MPO staff to discuss current priorities and provide input on how proposed future scenarios may impact our institutions. These sessions set the stage for further coordination with these stakeholders as we develop specific recommendations for regional transportation solutions for colleges and universities.

Our transit agency colleagues have already modified regional transit demand modeling to better account for the role campuses play in trip generation for students and employees. Some of our region’s campuses already serve as important transfer points, a role which has now opened the door for further discussion of partnerships between our respective institutions and transit services.

Two more local institutions, Southern University at New Orleans and Nunez Community College, have informally joined our efforts. Both shared data and insights to help inform how transit agencies prioritize service that supports colleges and universities throughout the region.

For the first time, campus populations are being given specific value in regional transportation planning, with students given their due weight in New Links’ “Transit Propensity Index” to determine where fast, reliable service is needed most.

More research is needed to assess the extent to which students’ educational opportunities are constrained by transportation issues. Questions remain about whether students are limiting course selections to online or satellite campuses out of necessity and how many students are attempting to reach campuses via our current, disjointed regional transit network.

Additionally, uncertainties abound due to COVID-19. City transit service is running indefinitely on a reduced service schedule and our bike share system is shuttered. More courses are being offered online and institutional budgets are tightly constrained.

Density maps illustrate where students at Delgado Community College, Dillard University and University of New Orleans students reside.
Density maps illustrate where students at Delgado Community College, Dillard University and University of New Orleans students reside.

 

This fall we are deploying campus wide surveys to answer these questions and ask students (and others in the campus community) about their current travel behaviors, preferences, challenges, concerns and priorities for accessing in-person or virtual education. We will host digital focus groups at each institution and seek to engage students who have identified transportation as a barrier to their education to help us generate and rank specific solutions for future implementation.

Finally, we have initiated a series of discussions between higher education and transit leaders to explore developing mutually beneficial programs (including U-passes, workforce development opportunities and service enhancements) that we hope will become a long-term partnership that meets the immediate needs of our students, supports agency revenue and development goals and expands access to opportunity for our campus communities.

Our universities are committed to eliminating the transportation barriers that our students encounter.  Engaging our students through surveys and focus groups helps us better understand how important transportation is to their daily lives.

For students who have consistent and reliable transportation, the question “how will I get there?” rarely arises.  But for every student who does not, we as educators know, that the question of “how will I reach my destination?” is a genuine concern for those who seek to earn a post-secondary credential. For our institutions this project is not solely about transportation solutions. It’s also about access to a better quality of life.

Jeff Benjamin, Ed. D. is director of the Academic Center for Excellence at Dillard University, Tamika Duplessis, Ph. D. is executive dean at Delgado Community College and Tara Tolford is a research associate at the University of New Orleans Transportation Institute. 

To foster increased learning among grantees and student success practitioners, transportation solutions grantees are submitting guest blogs as interim reports. More insights will be published in the coming months and featured in the Education Program’s bimonthly newsletter, Every Degree Matters. To subscribe, visit: www.kresge.org/subscribe.

Kresge staff is working remotely, and our offices are closed until further notice.  See our promise to partners during COVID-19.
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