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Mapping a route forward for community college students facing transit barriers


The Kresge Foundation recently convened transit officials and higher education leaders working on transportation and college success to debut new research from the Civic Mapping Initiative highlighting transit accessibility and Michigan’s community colleges.

According to new mapping data, only 44% of the 87 Michigan community and technical college campuses have a transit stop within walking distance. An additional 11 campuses are less than five miles from an existing transit line but are not yet connected.

Having a car is almost a prerequisite for students trying to earn a credential or degree in a state that historically has opted not to invest in a comprehensive public transportation system. For many community college students in Michigan, a lack of reliable and affordable transportation is a barrier to graduation and upward economic mobility attached to degree attainment.

 Larger text: Only 57% of community college main campuses in the United States have transit stops within walking distance (defined as a quarter mile or less) and many rural campuses have no public transportation access at all. Source (smaller text): A 2021 research brief by the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, a Washington, D.C.-based nonprofit that focuses on equitable access to public services.

After tuition costs, the complicated issue of getting to and from campus is often the next hurdle in pursuing a credential or degree.

“What I’ve found out is that what most students are going through has nothing to do with college academics; students are having trouble making it to college. A lot of those coaching conversations are centered around what bus schedules could get students to class and finding money for bus passes,” says Wytrice Harris, senior director of the Detroit Promise Path, a student success program that assigns a Campus Coach to all Detroit Promise community college students.

Even if students can identify schedules that align with coursework and have the funds to purchase a pass, there is no guarantee that there won’t be hiccups along the route.

Harris shares, “If you have to take two buses to campus and one is late, then that means you are less likely to get your connection to the next bus, then you’re going to be even later. That translates to a huge problem on campuses because if you miss the class, you miss the content of the class, and that has implications come test time.”

Beyond missed coursework, Harris shares that students often opt out of winter semester courses because riding a bus to campus means being out in frigid temperatures before the sun comes up and after the sun goes down. But without a car, there are few other options, and reliance on personal transportation is costly.

College Board estimates that 18% of a student’s budget goes toward transportation. However, federal funds awarded through Pell Grants and FASFA can’t legally be used toward purchasing a car, leaving students to cobble together a solution via ridesharing apps.

“We’ve seen the research and heard from college advisors anecdotally how students can be one flat tire away from dropping out of classes. It’s something as simple as dependable transportation,” says Kresge Education Program Officer Ashley Johnson. “Kresge’s work in transportation is approached from the view that the ability to get from one place to next is a means of equity and upward economic mobility.”

Let's stay in touch Sign up for our newsletters Subscribe“We’ve spent several years trying to figure out what’s been done in this space already and what we could do to enhance student success through greater collaboration with transit agencies, especially in a city like Detroit, which is so dependent on personal cars to get around,” says Bill Moses, managing director of the Kresge Education Program. “The program has invested more than $1.3 million in funding and has worked with colleges and universities to explore solutions that reflect the local agencies, transit infrastructure and student needs. In our applications and endeavors to better identify solutions, we’ve found approaches that put language to national frameworks for greater accessibility, application, and agency.”

In addition to funding partnerships, the Education Program worked with the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation and Civic Mapping Initiative to convene community college and transit leaders to provide a first look at how accessible community college campuses are across the state.

“Transit accessibility isn’t just about a route,” says Abigail Seldin, co-founder of the Civic Mapping Initiative. “It’s about whether or not the stop is accessible to people with disabilities, where the stop is located, and if people have to walk across six highway lanes to get to the stop.”

For Seldin, community colleges, armed with the mapping data, have an opportunity to create greater alignment, especially with the office of the registers. “This problem is potentially solvable in communities, which is special. You don’t need to believe in miracles to believe that transit can help serve students…get them in the door and through the door to graduation.”