CityViews: As Mayor & Council Clash Over Fares, CUNY MetroCards Offer a Compromise

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Molly

Just like the subway system, City Hall negotiations over transit affordability are breaking down. The City Council is promoting a $212 million proposal for half-price MetroCards for poor families. Mayor Bill de Blasio supports the goal, but balks at the price-tag and argues that it’s the state’s responsibility.

Why not compromise on an alternative that is more affordable and very much aligns with the city’s obligations? Make MetroCards free for the city’s low-income community college students.

The Council’s Fair Fares plan would undoubtedly provide a much-needed boost to tens of thousands of New Yorkers who are barely scraping by in a city where costs have risen far faster than wages. But providing free MetroCards to community college students would also have far-reaching benefits to low-income New Yorkers.

In today’s economy, CUNY’s community colleges serve as the city’s most reliable springboards to the middle class. But a significant share of New Yorkers—3.3 million city residents over age 25—still don’t have an associate’s degree or higher level of college attainment. And although more New Yorkers than ever are enrolling in the city’s community colleges, only 23 percent of them earn a credential in three years.

There’s a lot that could be done to help more students stay in school and earn a credential, but few things would be as valuable as offering free MetroCards. Our research shows that non-tuition expenses—including transit, childcare, food and housing—are among the biggest factors that cause students to drop out. This is hardly surprising given that 71 percent of CUNY community college students come from households with incomes of less than $30,000 per year and 16 percent have children whom they are supporting.

Although most CUNY students receive need-based financial aid, that aid typically does not cover non-tuition costs, which are formidable in New York. Roughly half of all CUNY community college students work while taking a full course load, but paying for transit adds an enormous strain. For many students, this means a choice about whether to put money on a MetroCard to get to class or work, stay home and use the money to feed themselves and their families, or take their chances jumping the turnstile—something students shared in a recent report by the Center for an Urban Future. “It got so that I would be at the station,” said one student, “and I would be thinking, it’s either hop the train or go home. So a couple of times I hopped the train.” No striving college student should have to make that choice.

Some community college students are already benefiting from access to transit. Participants in CUNY’s ASAP program receive a free monthly Metro Card as part of a package of supports intended to keep them on track for graduation. The results are impressive. An independent evaluation found that ASAP more than doubles a student’s chances of graduating on time—better than any comparable student success program in the United States.

It’s time to expand this transit benefit to all CUNY community college students.

In recent years, the mayor and City Council have wisely invested city funding into CUNY ASAP’s free transit benefit for 21,000 full-time students. Expanding it to include all students would be a bold step forward. Based on internal CUNY data, we estimate that the city can fund MetroCards for the remaining 37,000 community college students for about $34 million. The city could also choose to cover only community college students who currently receive Tuition Assistance Program benefits for about $23 million, or cover half-fares for under $12 million.

To combat inequality, New York City needs to boost student success. Making transit affordable for community college students can put more New Yorkers on an express train to a college degree and a brighter future.

Hilliard is the Center for an Urban Future’s senior fellow for economic opportunity.

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