By SARAH ATWOOD
Capital News Service
LANSING – Attendance at Michigan community colleges is declining, and rising transportation problems could be a factor.
Michigan community college enrollment fell from 208,000 students in 2016-17 to less than 160,00 in 2020-21, according to the Department of Education. During the same period, private transportation costs jumped more than 20%, the Consumer Price Index reports.
Most community college students are lower income and more likely to lack reliable transportation, reports the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation, a nonprofit organization that studies access to public services.
“Anecdotally, I can say that students who don’t have transportation will stop attending classes,” said Jay Walterreit, the director of public information and marketing at Alpena Community College. “We don’t have numerical data on this, but it’s definitely an issue when retaining students.”
Online classes have lessened the transportation problems for some students, but not all, Walterreit said.
In Michigan’s northern regions, it’s common to not have internet access.
“Some students drive over an hour to get to campus,” Walterreit said. “These might be the same students who live in remote areas without reliable internet. If they’re having trouble with transportation to campus, having the option for online classes is not going to help.”
Problems with transportation could harm attendance of students for remote or rural schools, Alpena Community College is over 2 miles from the nearest public transit stop, according to the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation.
About 99% of community college students in the nation are commuters, the foundation said. Their campuses need to be accessible to students traveling from elsewhere.
The problem is especially challenging for community colleges that seek students from multiple counties.
Kirtland Community College in Crawford County recruits students from 25 nearby counties, said Matthew Rice, the school’s director of communications. Most commute to the Grayling campus by car, so it’s necessary to have space for cars and solutions for students whose vehicles break down.
“We’re right off the highway, so students commuting by car are able to get here easily,” Rice said. “For students without cars, that’s a little trickier.”
County buses tend to not cross county lines, making it hard for students who live outside of Crawford County and don’t drive, Rice said.
Kirtland Community College is at least 2 miles from the nearest public transit, according to the Seldin/Haring Smith Foundation.
This isn’t uncommon, as only 57% of community college campuses nationwide have public transit stops within walking distance, defined as a quarter mile or less, according to Stateline, an initiative from Pew Charitable Trusts to educate the public on policy.
“If a student needed to use public transportation to get to class, they’d have to use multiple lines of transit,” Rice said.
Kirtland Community College has emergency funds for students who need help paying for transportation.
“This is a last resort, but we can cover bus passes or other public transportation fees,” Rice said. “If a student’s car breaks down, we can pay for an Uber.”
The funds are not unlimited, Rice said. The goal is to address the problem directly, rather than provide a temporary solution.
“If a student’s car breaks down, and it would be cheaper to get it fixed rather than pay for transit passes, the school will have a conversation about doing that,” Rice said.
Delta College also provides emergency funds to students with car trouble, said Kristy Nelson, the public transportation liaison for the school. The college, located in Bay County, also has students from Midland and Saginaw counties.
The president of Delta College has pushed for more equitable access to transportation to close the education gap for lower-income students, Nelson said. He has worked closely with the Saginaw Transit Authority Regional Services, or STARS, to make it easier for students to get to campus.
“Previously, there was a free shuttle bus that students used,” Nelson said. “But that was stopped because there was no profit.
“STARS has been really helpful and was enthusiastic about working with our president to make a direct connection from downtown Saginaw to our main campus,” he said.
The route opened this fall semester, Nelson said.
“We’re still getting the word out, but students are using it,” Nelson said. “It’s free with a student ID, and takes less time than the other bus routes that can take more than an hour.”
The Seldin/Harding-Smith Foundation recommends bus stops at all community and technical colleges, subsidies for students to use public more frequent bus stops.
The distance of the closest public transit stop to any particular college can be found at https://www.shs.foundation/shsf-transit-map