More Than Miles:  Bridging Gaps in Student Transportation for Academic Success

Students who are unable to reliably commute to their college campus are at risk of falling behind in school or dropping out altogether. For many students, the cost of transportation presents a barrier to higher education. In 2020-2021, transportation costs accounted for nearly 20 percent of the cost of attending college for commuting students, according to the College Board.

Seventy-eight percent of undergraduate students who responded to Trellis’ Fall 2022 Student Financial Wellness Survey (SFWS) reported having a car, and just eight percent reported using public transportation to get to school often or always, highlighting the prevalence of private vehicles as a means for transportation in higher education. This demonstrates the need for colleges and universities to have the infrastructure in place to support student commuters. 

That said, many students, particularly those on the fringes of financial stability, rely heavily on other forms of transportation to commute to school, work and elsewhere. For these students, numerous other issues persist that threaten their ability to reliably participate in the many tasks competing for their time each day. Among these issues are the prohibitive affordability of public transportation, inconvenient routes, frequency and schedules, housing and work proximity, and poor reliability and quality.

Transit is often planned with the work commuter in mind. Resultantly, college students’ schedules may not align with frequent ride times and may not be served by transit which seeks to transport to commercial hubs and central business districts. The hub and spoke layout of many transit systems may furthermore complicate the way in which students may utilize transit, and the presence of transit stops does not guarantee their usage is convenient. Barriers to transportation are also not distributed equally. These barriers disproportionately impact low-income and minority students.

Recognizing that commuting students face an uphill battle before even arriving at campus is the first step in participating in solutions that make their college experience more manageable. School policy can have a drastic impact on alleviating student transportation problems. Making other forms of transportation beyond personal vehicles easily accessible for students is the most direct way to incentivize their usage. Things as large-scale as offering free transit, or as small as offering discounted transit options through student IDs may have a profound impact on student decisions. Working with local transit agencies to expand service areas, operational hours or routes can often have major benefits as well. 

Anthony Schuette is a researcher with a wealth of transportation related expertise. Before working at Trellis Strategies, he contributed to reports and research examining multimodal transit, electric vehicle infrastructure, airports, transit efficiency and more. At Trellis Strategies, Anthony uses student-level, locational, and demographic data to better understand the interplay between transportation and student success.