Latinos’ Path to A Degree Depends on Getting to and From School

Getting to and from school by public transit or car is a common experience for today’s college student. For Latino students and families, transportation carries a heavier burden; 27% of Latinos rely on public transit more frequently compared to 14% of whites, and 12% of Latinos are less likely to have access to a car compared to 6.5% of whites. This burden is contributing to lower college completion rates among Latino students, and its gaining traction in the language of pandemic recovery House legislation. 

An 18-percentage point difference in college completion between Latino and white students continues to jeopardize the economic future of Latinos in this country. The gap exists not because of a lack of value or commitment to higher education by Latino families, but because Latino students deal with the effects of inequities fueled by decades of systemic exclusion and lack of holistic targeted supports in higher education.  

In New Study, Latinos List “Transportation Problems” as Barrier to College Completion  

Last year, UnidosUS teamed up with the UNC School of Law on Dreams Interrupted: A Mixed-Methods Study Assessing Latino College Completion, a report that 
analyzed 1,500 surveys and interviewed 24 individuals who started but never completed a college program. A significant share of the survey respondents identified as Latinos (35%) and all of 24 people interviewed identified as Latinos. This allowed the researchers to identify barriers to completing college. In the study, Latinos listed “transportation problems” as a reason for leaving their college program at a 19% higher rate than non-Latinos. In fact, it was one of the top reasons that Latinos left their college program.  

Interviewees described their transportation problems as a financial cost, a transit scheduling issue, a time pressure, and/or a family stressor. The majority of people interviewed lacked access to a reliable car, primarily lived at home or with family, and relied on various transportation modes to commute to school. An interviewee who primarily used the local bus system said transit scheduling issues and time pressures ultimately led her to drop out of college. The layered challenges of transportation and school became impossible to bear because she experienced sexual harassment, uneven wait times, and the cost of transit fare. An interviewee in a similar situation explained: “It became too hard to juggle. I would be in class, but I would be worried about, ‘am I going to make it to work on time? Am I going to catch the train on time to make it to work?’ And then I wouldn’t be focused on the class.”    

Of the few people interviewed who owned a car, transportation continued to be a barrier. They noted difficulty balancing car insurance and maintenance payments with the cost of tuition and books, and they experienced repeated car problems.  

One interviewee said car upkeep became so costly she had to drop a class and was later left with debt but no degree. She considered switching to public transportation, but the commute time, which increased from 25-30 minutes via car to two and half hours via bus, did not fit her tight work and school schedule. Even when interviewees had reliable transportation, family responsibilities required additional transportation costs. Another interviewee explained that was the primary point of contact for her three younger siblings and responsible for getting them to and from school. Although her schedule was more flexible than her mother’s, the added family responsibilities made her overall commute time to school  so strenuous it disrupted her ability to focus on school.   

Filling the Gap with Transportation Subsidies and Completion Initiatives  

A recent study by the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation notes how a college campus not easily accessible by public transit adds a mental and physical strain on students. The study found that, even at community colleges, which are intended to be the most accessible to poverty-stricken communities, 18.4% have no public transit stop within 4.5 miles from the main campus. And while a closer transit stop may improve a student’s overall transportation experience, transit proximity to the school is not a magic bullet. Interviewees from the study noted that bus schedules disconnected from their course schedule and lengthy bus commutes derailed both work and study, making it difficult to continue in school. While improving an institution’s transportation infrastructure doesn’t mitigate the scheduling conflicts and financial costs Latinos reported, it’s an important start.   

Our study clearly identifies transportation problems, alongside college costs, as a barrier that weighs more heavily on Latinos and presents itself as a barrier to college completion. Improving transportation infrastructure, coupled with targeted transit subsidies across institutions and especially at colleges and universities where Latinos are likely to attend, could give students a real chance at staying on their path to a degree.   

For example, some college programs are addressing transportation problems holistically and seeing results. At New York City’s community colleges (CUNY), 90% of CUNY students use public transportation to commute to school. Yet, a recent study found that CUNY students who dropped out did so in part because they couldn’t afford the cost of a MetroCard, which can cost a full-time student up to $1000 a year. The CUNY ASAP program responded to this problem by providing participating students with free unlimited MetroCards, among other supports. As a result, graduation rates for community college students in New York doubled. In California, the GO RIO program at Rio Hondo College, which provides enrolled students with a U-Pass, a heavily discounted transit fare card, is improving Latinos’ academic outcomes. Another study examining the program’s impact found that a majority of Hispanic students that received the U-Pass experienced higher rates in retention, credit accumulation, and degree attainment.   

Congress’ Role in Recognizing Latino Students College Completion Needs  

Luckily, federal policymakers are making a nod to students’ transportation needs, in addition to focusing on completion, as evidenced by the House version of the Build Back Better Act. The package establishes a $10 billion transportation grant program to develop new transit routes, reduce transit fare costs, and increase transit frequency on existing routes for communities living in poverty and in need of educational opportunities. Additionally, there is a one-time $500 million investment in evidence-based retention and completion programs to support college students who are traditionally excluded from accessing higher education. The funds will scale or launch critical student support services, comprehensive academic and career advising, and emergency grant aid at eligible institutions. These support services could cover costs related to car troubles or transit fares, and can assist Latinos in overcoming major life disruptions, allowing them to stay on course to complete their degree.   

Notably, the Senate’s version of the Build Back Better Act stripped key transportation investments that are sorely needed to remove the transportation problems blocking Latinos’ degree attainment. Policymakers should acknowledge that college completion is dependent on other factors like easily getting to and from school. At a time when Latino college enrollment is declining, due in large part to the COVID-19 pandemic coupled with the burden of external factors, Congress must act by passing a Build Back Better Act version that will directly help Latino students stay engaged in their studies.   

-Author Amanda Martinez is an UnidosUS Senior Education Policy Analyst. She wrote this blog in collaboration with UnidosUS Senior Policy Advisor Roxanne Garza and University of North Carolina Assistant Professor of Law Kate Sablosky Elengold.

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