Patricia Howard, who travels from Corona, Queens, to the College of Staten Island, says the shuttle bus makes the commute feasible.

Patricia Howard, who travels from Corona, Queens, to the College of Staten Island, says the shuttle bus makes the commute feasible. Photo: Meredith Kolodner

STATEN ISLAND, N.Y. — Patricia Howard wanted to go to college, but she was in a bind. She worried she’d get off track if she stayed in her densely packed New York City neighborhood, in Queens, but her mom needed her, and out-of-town options were too expensive, even with financial aid.

She had heard of the College of Staten Island, which seemed impossibly far away, across two boroughs and the New York harbor. Then she found out about a free shuttle bus that would significantly ease her commute. One look at the course catalog and then the expansive lawns on a campus dotted with trees and low-lying brick buildings and she was sold.

“The shuttle does make it easier, it helps out a lot,” said Howard, 18, whose commute is about two hours. “It keeps you on track for class. If I had stayed in the city it would have been too comfortable, too easy not to study.”

The national conversation about helping more low-income students of color like Howard go to college has produced a complex set of potential solutions, but on Staten Island, a simple blue bus seems to have opened doors that administrators had been struggling to unlock for years. Overall enrollment at the college has increased by only 15 percent since the shuttle was started, but the numbers of black and Latino students have increased by 49 and 43 percent respectively.

The experience may provide lessons for colleges seeking to attract a more diverse group of students.

“Transportation is an access issue,” said Jennifer Brown Lerner, deputy director at the American Youth Policy Forum. “Research indicates that it is one of the barriers students face for enrollment and keeping up in college, both in terms of access and cost.”

It’s not just an issue in poorer neighborhoods in cities, where black and Latino youth are overrepresented, but also, she said, in rural and suburban areas where public transportation is more scarce.

Related: Communities come together to increase college-going from the ground up

Administrators at the College of Staten Island, or CSI, which is part of the City University of New York, say that even though other initiatives may have contributed to the school’s increased diversity, such as more outreach programs and the addition of dorms two years ago, the shuttle bus has been key. An early ridership study showed that about half the students were coming from other parts of New York City. The college, which is now 12 percent Asian, 14 percent black and 17 percent Latino, is more diverse than Staten Island itself.

The CSI staff also stress that the shuttle bus has broadened access for residents of Staten Island as well.

“What happened in the implementation of the shuttle bus is that the diversity of the student body increased,” said Michael Kress, vice president of information technology and economic development, who has worked at CSI for 47 years. “The places where there’s a lot of diversity on Staten Island, there’s not a lot of transportation, so it’s not easy to get to the campus unless you have a car.”

Shuttle bus ridership rose to 360,000 passengers last year, a 60 percent increase from when it began. The shuttle now reliably runs every 20 minutes from the ferry terminal during peak hours and the ride takes 25 minutes — about half the time that a city bus takes. And city buses’ departure times can be unreliable.

Word of the CSI shuttle’s success has spread. Last fall Queens College (which has similar problems with city bus reliability) added a shuttle bus to run between the two main public transit hubs and the college. At Connecticut’s Asnuntuck Community College, a free shuttle bus now picks up students from Hartford — mostly young people who weren’t able to pursue college right after high school — takes them to the college, about 25 minutes away, and buses them back at the end of the day.

Dajour Armstrong didn’t want to stay in the Bronx for college and takes a bus, two trains and the ferry to the shuttle bus, which drops him off at the College of Staten Island.

Dajour Armstrong didn’t want to stay in the Bronx for college and takes a bus, two trains and the ferry to the shuttle bus, which drops him off at the College of Staten Island. Photo: Meredith Kolodner

One of the main barriers to providing such efficient, low-cost transportation is, of course, the price tag.

“Colleges will ask themselves, do I spend dollars on increasing the quality of my staff and programs, or on transit vouchers and better transportation,” said Erin Russ, a policy assistant with EducationCounsel.

Related: Colleges need to support low-income students or risk greater economic disparity. But can it be done?

The CSI shuttle began as a pilot program in 2008, using federal grant money that dried up after two years. But the shuttle was so popular that the college continued to fund most of it from its general budget. Last year, however, Albany budget cuts for CUNY meant the college effectively lost $2.7 million, according to Ira Persky, CSI’s vice president for finance and administration. Students agreed to a $40 per-semester fee (which can be covered by financial aid) to help keep the shuttle and other internal bus services running. The shuttle bus alone costs about $800,000 per year, according to Persky.

Still, many students say it’s worth it. Dajour Armstrong gets up at 5 a.m. to get to class on time from his home in the Throgs Neck section of the Bronx. He has already ridden a bus, two subway trains and the ferry by the time he takes a seat on the shuttle bus. After such an odyssey, the prospect of being late to class because of an erratic city bus was disheartening.

“I didn’t want to stay in the Bronx; I wanted to get out and explore,” said Armstrong, 18. “They told me about the shuttle. It makes it easier.”

[Cross-posted at The Hechinger Report]

Our ideas can save democracy... But we need your help! Donate Now!

Meredith Kolodner is a staff writer. She previously covered schools for the New York Daily News and was an editor at and for The Investigative Fund at the Nation Institute. She’s also covered housing, schools, and local government for the Press of Atlantic City and The Chief-Leader newspaper and her work has appeared in the New York Times and the American Prospect. Kolodner is a graduate of Brown University and Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism and an active New York City public school parent.