A Johnson County Community College student leaves campus by bus Feb. 28 in Overland Park.
A Johnson County Community College student leaves campus by bus Feb. 28 in Overland Park. (Chase Castor/The Beacon).

For Jonathan Myers, taking the bus from his home in Missouri to school at Johnson County Community College in Overland Park saves money but not time. 

The journey from Lee’s Summit, which includes one transfer in downtown Kansas City, takes about 90 minutes each way on RideKC buses. 

“Weather permitting,” Myers said. “Traffic permitting. And labor permitting. All the buses have labor shortages.”

Though Myers has a truck and could drive himself to campus, RideKC, right now, is free.

“I work full time and I go to school full time and I take care of my mom,” said Myers, a computer science student. “I have a lot on my plate.”

Myers is among the 99% of community college students who live off campus, according to recent research from the Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation. The College Board estimates they spend an average of $1,840 a year on transportation — more than their peers at four-year colleges. Another study estimates that transportation costs add up to nearly 20% of living expenses for college students who commute.

Convenient, accessible public transportation could help lower those costs, but Seldin/Haring-Smith Foundation found that only 57% of community colleges nationwide are within walking distance of a bus line.

The Kansas City area bucks that trend — all except the Longview campus of the Metropolitan Community College system are within walking distance of bus lines. Yet parking lots still fill up with cars when classes are in session.

Myers is thankful that he can opt not to be among the majority of JCCC students commuting by car.

Many of his fellow bus passengers, he said, have no choice.

A week on the bus: Longer commutes and missed connections

Randy Weber, an executive vice president who oversees student success initiatives at JCCC, has been thinking about students who rely on public transportation.

“One of our big initiatives across campus has been to have more equitable outcomes in our student support,” he said. “We realized that students may be fully academically prepared to be successful at school, but without the means to get here reliably they’re missing out on so much.”

Last summer, Weber got an up-close look at how public transportation can impact students’ lives. He became a bus rider for a week.

Instead of jumping in his truck and driving 17 minutes to campus, he walked to the nearest bus stop, rode to his transfer location and caught a second bus. His commute now took at least 50 minutes. 

One day he missed his regular connection — a glitch that added an hour and 34 minutes to his ride time. Another time a bus broke down and he was late for a special dinner with his family. When he had to stay on campus for an evening board meeting, he had no bus option at all.

“It was a reality check for me about the stressors that transportation places on students who already have a lot of stress,” Weber said. 

Those stresses include what Myers mentioned about finances and juggling school, jobs and family responsibilities. 

Now, in addition to the existing public transportation issues, gasoline prices are predicted to rise even higher due to disruptions caused by Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  

Bipartisan legislation introduced in the U.S. Congress last year sought to create grants that community colleges, historically Black colleges and universities and other schools focused on underserved communities could use in cooperation with local transit providers to increase student transportation options. But the legislation, known as the Promoting Advancement for Transit Help (PATH) to College Act, has not moved out of committee. 

Free bus rides, microtransit available to Kansas City area students

Community college students in and around Kansas City have more options than their peers in rural areas. Rural students rely almost entirely on vehicles to get to school and travel an average of 52 round-trip miles a day, according to the Rural Community College Alliance. For them, gasoline price hikes or engine trouble could doom a semester.

RideKC, the bus system serving the Kansas City region, is committed to being free for riders through 2023.

Two campuses — Johnson County Community College and Longview in the Metropolitan Community College system — have access to “microtransit” services, where students who live close to campus can arrange for door-to-door van service for free or a reasonable cost. 

But a recent morning visit to the Metropolitan Community College’s Penn Valley campus in Kansas City found mostly empty buses pulling up to nearby stops, even as cars were filling up the parking spaces.

Michael Kelley, policy coordinator at the nonprofit BikeWalkKC, said he observed the same thing when he was a student at Kansas City Kansas Community College a decade ago. Bus transportation was available, but almost no one used it.

“It speaks to how much it’s been overlooked,” Kelley said. “We’re not building community colleges in a way that they’re connected with other places. When we don’t have sidewalks or bike paths, it really does force you to have to have a car.”

Robbie Makinen, president and CEO of the Kansas City Area Transportation Authority, said community colleges and the regional bus system, RideKC, need stronger relationships. 

“Public transit is usually an afterthought,” he said. “When it comes to the community colleges, public transit needs to be part of the fabric.”

Transportation leaders are talking to community college leaders about how to better serve students, Makinen said. Metropolitan Community College sends outreach workers to the KCATA’s new East Village Transit Center, where they can recruit students and offer services to hundreds of bus riders a day. The transit company and college system are also in talks about training courses for drivers and mechanics. Makinen wants them to work together to apply for additional funding.

“We always need more service,” he said. “How do we work together and leverage each other to get some things done that have never been done before?”

Investing in students includes addressing transportation needs

Locally and nationally, community colleges are trying to remove obstacles to student learning. Enrollment was on the decline before the pandemic, and the drops have accelerated on many campuses over the last two years. 

Johnson County Community College, for example, saw its enrollment drop from the equivalent of nearly 10,500 full-time students  in 2016 to fewer than 9,000 in 2021 — a decrease of about 14%.

College leaders are worried about completion rates and the emotional health of struggling students. They are offering help with groceries and housing. And increasingly, they are addressing transit needs.

For drivers, Johnson County Community College offers small emergency grants to students who need help with a car repair or payment, Weber said. 

But Weber worries that bus riders may be missing out on services that help students succeed and stay in school. The last afternoon buses at JCCC depart campus too early for riders to participate in the school’s many clubs and extracurricular activities, for instance.

“If you’re coming solely for classes and you’re not involved or you’re not seeking tutoring, then you’re going to be at a higher risk for failure or departure than your peers who are actively involved and engaged,” Weber said. “We’ve got a number of initiatives on campus designed to better engage individuals. And we know that students with transportation challenges are limited in those options.”

Makinen said the discussion connecting student success with the ability to get to school is overdue.

“The return investment for empathy, for compassion, for social equity far outweighs the return investment for asphalt and concrete,” he said. “So what do we want to invest in? We need to invest in students.”

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Barbara Shelly is a freelance reporter for The Beacon.