Happy New Year! I’m Goldie Blumenstyk, a senior writer at The Chronicle covering innovation in and around academe.

We’ve made some changes in The Edge. I’ll continue to report, write, and produce this newsletter, but some weeks, it will lead off with contributions from my colleagues. This week, you’ve got me.

Reliable transportation is also a basic need.

Food pantries have become common features of campus life. Now, colleges are beginning to recognize another basic student need: affordable, safe, reliable transportation.

While only a few institutions currently provide or facilitate low-cost access to transportation — typically through subsidies for bus, subway, or light-rail rides — such benefits are likely to grow as recognition of “transportation insecurity” continues.

It’s about time. And with billions in federal infrastructure dollars soon to start flowing, the timing could also be opportune.

Still, the challenges are sizable. Consider that at 43 percent of community and technical colleges’ main campuses, there isn’t even a transit stop within easy walking distance, according to a newly published map. More than 18 percent don’t have a stop within 4.5 miles. Solutions will require creativity — and cooperation, if not partnerships with organizations beyond the campus.

At the same time, the momentum is undeniable, spurred in part by grants from the Kresge and Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundations. To wit: The new GoPass program offering free transit to Los Angeles County Community College District students came in response to grant-funded experiments in the region showing that students persisted at higher rates with subsidized transit.

Congress has also begun to pay heed. U.S. Rep. Conor Lamb and Sen. Robert Casey, both Democrats of Pennsylvania, recently introduced bipartisan legislation in the House and Senate calling on the U.S. Departments of Labor and Transportation to offer competitive grants to promote greater transit access at colleges. As part of their rationale for this PATH to College Act, the lawmakers cited the new map, developed by the Seldin/Haring Smith Foundation. An analysis accompanying the map also provides an overview of transit access at four-year colleges, HBCUs, and other minority-serving institutions. And this year the foundation plans to add state-by-state information on transit access at all campuses.

Abigail Seldin, chief executive and co-founder of the foundation, calls the map “just a point of departure” for further discussions of transit access. In fact, it is a vital catalyst. The map is the first tool to show how existing public-transportation systems leave students stranded. It also shows how minor adjustments to transit systems could increase access: An additional 25 percent of two-year colleges, for example, could be made accessible by short route extensions, schedule changes, or regular shuttle buses to nearby stops.

I’ve been watching developments in transportation access for a few years now. The free transit for students that Joe May, then chancellor of the Dallas Community College District, negotiated with local transportation leaders in 2017 piqued my interest. The issue seemed less urgent when the pandemic hit and so many classes went online. Now, with in-person classes more prevalent (assuming this current spike in Covid-19 cases is short-lived), and colleges looking to boost enrollment, transit is relevant again.

Compared with the costs and complexities of assisting students with other commonly identified basic needs (like food, housing, and child care), transportation could be an easier lift. That’s because many of the solutions that would help students could also benefit transit organizations, as they aim to maximize use and nurture a culture of ridership. Solutions are easier to achieve when all parties see potential for a win.

But all of this will take some work. That includes:

Understanding the problems. Colleges may not realize how much students are affected by transit limits. The Dallas district, for example, learned that transit was the biggest barrier students faced only after it surveyed them and had 30 administrators shadow 70 students for several months, May told me. The transit passes made a difference, raising regular student ridership from 10,000 to 30,000 (pre-Covid).

Aligning transit timetables with students’ schedules. As much as affordable fares and nearby stops matter, they won’t do any good if buses and trains don’t run when students need them. At many institutions, students attend classes at night, or need to travel to clinical sites to complete course requirements — not to mention commute from work to campus (or their child’s school or day-care center). Unless the rail systems and buses can accommodate those daily needs, even an expanded, free system won’t be enough. In Dallas, the transit authority adjusted schedules to make it easier for nursing students to reach clinical sites.

Establishing relationships between colleges and transit leaders. Colleges can’t ease students’ transportation barriers by themselves. Cooperation with local and regional transportation officials is vital. In some communities, that’s happening already, thanks in part to a “basic needs” project connecting cities and colleges, spearheaded by the National League of Cities. But are postsecondary leaders at the table when transit agencies are making decisions? That’s a point that Bela Shah Spooner, a program director with the league’s Institute for Youth, Education, and Families, raised with me recently. I suspect few are. As more colleges understand how transportation limits are affecting their students, let’s hope that changes.

Ponying up some money. Colleges can’t expect transit agencies to offer — never mind extend — their services free of charge. But in many cases, adding student riders might not cost those agencies a lot of money. In Dallas, for example, the community-college district pays Dallas Area Rapid Transit $20 per student to provide free passes. It’s doable because property values have increased in the region, the former chancellor said, and the district is using some of the rising property-tax revenue to cover the cost. As Seldin said to me: “In a world where a lot of higher-ed solutions can be very expensive, this is very cheap.”

Of course this little agenda isn’t exhaustive. For one thing, it’s focused primarily on “last mile” connections for colleges and transit agencies to help students get to campus. But plenty of students live in places where there’s no public transit stop near their homes. As May put it, for them, “the ‘first mile’ is the problem.”

And many other students live in communities where there’s not just no stop, but no public transit at all. For car-dependent students, more-meaningful support might be as simple as a change in the federal student-aid policy that now prohibits students from using Title IV money to purchase a car. (Last year Seldin made a case for ditching that prohibition in this op-ed in The Hill.)

Finally, while it seems pretty obvious that making it easier and more affordable for students to get to and from campuses will also make it likelier that they’ll persist in their educational goals, there’s a case to be made that additional research focused specifically on the impacts of transportation assistance would be useful. (Previous evaluations of programs like CUNY ASAP have demonstrated their value, but those programs included other supports beyond those for transportation.) Bethany Miller, who until recently oversaw college transportation grants for Kresge, is one of the people urging this work. Right now, the cause has some wind in its sails. But being able to quantify whether and how spending pays off could show college leaders and policy makers that such investments are worth it, Miller said, even “when dollars are scarce.”

Recommended reading.

Here are some education-related stories from other outlets that recently caught my eye. Did I miss a good one? Let me know.

  • As federal policy makers weigh new accountability measures for higher education, they should recognize that “information alone is not enough to steer students away from poorly performing schools,” four education researchers argue in this essay posted on The Brown Center Chalkboard at Brookings. “Pretending otherwise,” it says, “will only exacerbate ongoing inequities in our higher education system and in society.”
  • Five years after writing a book about the rise of nondegree credentials, Northeastern University’s Sean Gallagher reflects in EdSurge that “there is still a major need for standards, infrastructure, thoughtful policy, innovative experiments and research to support the development of an ecosystem of quality credential offerings.”
  • When the economy is down, enrollment in higher education usually rises. But when we’re in the midst of what The Washington Post calls “the most unusual job market in modern American history,” it’s harder to predict what comes next.

Got a tip you’d like to share or a question you’d like me to answer? Let me know, at goldie@chronicle.com. If you have been forwarded this newsletter and would like to see past issues, find them here. To receive your own copy, free, register here. If you want to follow me on Twitter, @GoldieStandard is my handle.

Goldie’s Weekly Picks