The primary role of community colleges is to provide post-high school education to those who need to launch careers and pave their way to a better future, but either aren’t ready or able — especially financially — to attend a four-year college.
These schools also provide technical educations in fields that traditional four-year colleges don’t address, helping students enter trades that don’t require the academic background students get from four-year programs.
But even managing to attend community colleges, where the costs of education are typically much lower than at traditional colleges or may be subsidized by government-sponsored tuition-assistance programs, can be a challenge for some.
That’s especially true for those whose major barrier is transportation. Not everyone has a car or access to one. And that can be a serious deterrent to prospective community college students in rural areas such as Southwest Virginia, where public transportation is nearly nonexistent.
It’s for that reason that we applaud the recent initiative to provide a daily shuttle service for students of Virginia Highlands Community College in Abingdon to reach the school from as far away as Bristol.
This new, free service, which was launched by VHCC this semester, already is providing rides to and from the school for 19 students daily, according to a story in the Bristol Herald Courier.
The shuttle service — known as the #CollegeExpress and operated by Mountain Lynx Transit — has the capacity at present to handle up to 40 students coming to Abingdon Mondays through Thursdays from Bristol.
VHCC announced the shuttle program in August during an event at the Bristol Train Station along with community partners such as the Bristol Virginia Public Schools, Bristol Department of Social Services and United Way of Bristol, the newspaper reported.
Initial funding came from the Virginia Foundation for Community College Education, which provided a first-year pilot grant of nearly $29,000. The shuttle program is now looking for money to keep the shuttles going next year and beyond, and even hopes to add evening shuttle trips for students who work during the day but take classes at night.
Already, the story noted, VHCC has begun using the shuttle for local trips when it’s not making the runs between Abingdon and Bristol. Students who live in Abingdon can use it to get to campus in those off-hours between the morning drop-off and afternoon pickup of Bristol students.
The shuttles might also eventually be employed to help needy students get access to meals and other services, the college said.
“When a student comes, it’s not just transportation, it’s not just classes and books, but we are looking at everything that we can do to help them be successful in their life,” said Deborah Ledford, who works with VHCC in the Great Expectations program, helping to promote youth access to community colleges across the state.
Commuting expense alone is significant for those who do have access to vehicles, the story said, noting that “VHCC’s student budget for the 2019-20 school year estimates that a student who attends classes nine months of the year will incur $3,400 in transportation expenses.”
Our more affluent Virginia urban areas are blessed with excellent public transportation — much of it government-subsidized — which can help students in those areas go to just about any school they want to.
But here in Southwest Virginia, we’re pretty much on our own when we want to get from Point A to Point B. And some of us just aren’t able to get there and back whenever we need to because we lack the resources.
For that reason, programs such as the #CollegeExpress need and deserve our support.
We hope that VHCC will be able to find long-term funding to sustain and expand this new shuttle service and that more aspiring community college students will be able to use it to fulfill their dreams for their futures.