A frequently trafficked subway line in Boston started a month-long shutdown for maintenance work last Friday, worrying local higher ed administrators ahead of the fall semester. Some community college leaders fear students may struggle to get to class, or delay starting college altogether, because of the disruption to their commutes.
The temporary closure of the Orange Line, planned to last until Sept. 18, has been a looming source of anxiety among Bostonians for weeks. The Massachusetts Bay Transportation Authority (MBTA) set a goal to complete five years’ worth of construction in a month on a line that usually transports about 100,000 daily riders.
“It’s how I’m losing a lot of sleep,” said Pam Eddinger, president of Bunker Hill Community College.
Most of Eddinger’s students live within a 10-mile radius of the campus and rely on the T, as Boston’s subway system is known, to get there. Her institution and Roxbury Community College both sit along the Orange Line, with stations right near their campuses, generally a major benefit to their commuter students. But the shutdown overlaps with the beginning of the fall semester, starting Aug. 31 at Roxbury and Sept. 6 at Bunker Hill.
Other higher ed institutions also expect students to be inconvenienced by the maintenance work, including Northeastern University, Emerson College and Tufts University.
Eddinger said the timing is especially unfortunate as Bunker Hill plans to switch back to offering more than half of its classes in person or hybrid starting this fall. She’s also concerned maintenance work on the Orange Line may take longer than a month.
“There’s so much unknown,” she said. “Coming out of COVID, this is the last thing I was looking for.”
The Return to In-Person
Paula Umaña, director of institutional engagement at the Hope Center for College, Community, and Justice at Temple University, said community college leaders across the country are eager to hold classes in person this fall to keep students engaged and enrolled after steep pandemic enrollment declines. But less remote learning means transportation issues like this one pose a serious obstacle to students.
“This shutdown is going to happen right at the beginning of the fall semester, right when these two community colleges are going to receive new students,” she said. “What are those students going to do? This is their dream. They’ve been waiting to go to college, and boom, first barrier.”
Both community colleges now have information up on their websites detailing other bus and commuter rail routes students can take to their campuses. Roxbury Community College leaders also instructed faculty members not to penalize students for lateness because of public transit issues, and managers have been asked to offer the same flexibility to college employees.
Lisa Battiston, an MBTA spokesperson, said the agency is offering a free shuttle bus along a portion of the Orange Line route and is recommending people take the Commuter Rail, the train system in greater Boston, at no cost during the shutdown. MBTA staff members are also available at Orange Line stations to guide commuters.
“We know many of our riders, like teachers and students, do not have the option to stay home during the closure,” Battiston said in an email. “The MBTA is committed to working with our municipal partners, all school districts, and all colleges and universities touched by the Orange Line shutdown in order to provide riders with alternative travel options.”
Jordan E. Smock, executive director of communications, marketing and external affairs at Roxbury, said college administrators met with MBTA officials to offer input on transportation alternatives to ahead of the closure. So far, students, faculty and staff members don’t seem to be having significant problems getting to campus.
However, “next week will provide us with much better insight on any shortcomings with the alternative transit options,” she said in an email, referring to the start of the fall semester.
Patrick Collins, executive director of media relations at Tufts, said the university has been suggesting other modes of transportation to students, as well.
“Many of our students, particularly those on our Health Sciences Campus in Boston, rely on the Orange Line to get to and from campus,” Collins said in an email. “We have communicated with students, faculty and staff on the Health Sciences campus in Boston to inform them of alternative transportation options, such as carpooling, biking, working from home, if possible, and others.”
Campus administrators have also had regular meetings with local, state and MBTA officials to request expanded transportation options and resources for their students.
For example, Tufts leaders and others successfully advocated for shuttle buses to Chinatown, where the university’s health sciences campus is located. Administrators also asked the MBTA to post signs about the closure in multiple languages and have multilingual MBTA staff members at stations to help campus visitors, students, faculty members and employees find their way to campuses. Collins said the signs are forthcoming, but the MBTA is struggling to find enough ambassadors who speak other languages.
Eddinger said state and city officials have done their best to make the shutdown less onerous for Orange Line riders, but regardless, some students are going to have longer, more convoluted routes to campus—and to everywhere else they need to go for the next month.
“Three-quarters of our students are adults, and they work,” she said. “So, it’s not just taking the bus to school. It’s dropping off the kids, taking them to school, going to work, coming back, picking up the kids … We know that it’s way more complex. And we know that our students right now, just coming back from COVID, are tentative already about restarting [college].”
She believes some students may put off enrolling this semester to avoid more complicated trips to campus.
Deferring is “a tendency to try to relieve the pain and stress in their lives,” but those students might not come back, she said. “I’m worried about enrollment.”
Student head count at Bunker Hill has already dropped from 11,769 students in fall 2019 to 9,327 students in fall 2021. The enrollment decline echoes the trend among community colleges nationwide during the pandemic.
“Enrollment numbers have just been going lower and lower and lower,” Umaña said. “It’s staggering how abysmal enrollment numbers are for community colleges for the most part.”
“This particular issue with the subway being shut down in Boston—it’s going to impact, if not enrollment, definitely retention,” especially among adult learners and students with childcare responsibilities, she added.
She also worries students who opt to drive to campuses in lieu of taking the Orange Line might incur extra costs, especially as inflation continues to drive up gas prices in some areas. A 2021 report by the Seldin-Harris Smith Foundation found that 99 percent of students at community colleges live off campus, and they spend $1,840 per year on transportation costs on average.
“The cost of transportation is extremely expensive,” she said. “If Mom and Dad give you a car, and Mom and Dad give you gas money … you’re most likely going to be OK. But for those students, they don’t have Mom and Dad. They’re Mom and Dad.”
Eddinger is ultimately glad to see long-delayed repairs made to a line frequently used by students that’s notoriously slow and unsafe, especially after an Orange Line train caught fire in July. But she’s steeling herself for the hurdles it will cause for students and their families when classes start.
The Orange Line “runs through a lot of our communities of color … and our communities of high need, and it is a lifeline,” she said. “It is a lifeline for our college and a lifeline for the working life of our citizens. It’s a logistical challenge, even if everything ran smoothly.”