JACK NOLAND, ECONOMIC DEVELOPMENT DIRECTOR
Immediately after I had committed to GW, I searched for a student discount on a Metro SmarTrip card. Plans of exploring this historic city filled my head. Surely there must be some sort of deal for college students, I thought, but there was none to be found.
GW prides itself on its location and opportunities, but fails to fully equip students with the means to take advantage of both by doing nothing to ease the burden of access to these unique jobs and internships. Subsidizing student Metro transportation would allow the university to back up its commitment to community integration and would help to expose and ingratiate students into the city around them.
It’s an open secret that there is a bubble in which GW students live, work, and play. Many students will stay in Foggy Bottom with occasional jaunts to Georgetown, Columbia Heights, or Capitol Hill, and in so doing miss out on much of what makes DC such an interesting place. Easier access to transportation would help expose students to a wider swath of such a diverse cultural and historical city.
Yes, discounted Metro fare would help students get to the nightlife of U Street and Adams Morgan more easily. Lowering transportation costs for students might just make it easier for students to travel to the places they already go. One way to better ensure that such a discount aids students doing unique off-campus work would be to grant transportation subsidies to those who have volunteer opportunities or unpaid internships, especially in underserved communities.
Anyone who has worked an unpaid internship or volunteered around the city can tell you that even with the professional experience and sense of accomplishment that may accompany those opportunities, there are very real costs at hand. This often leads to students having to pay for transportation to and from their work, which, over the course of a semester, or four years, can add up dramatically.
GW can ease this burden on its student body by subsidizing the cost of transportation for those students who demonstrate a willingness to get off-campus and work an unpaid position. Students could fill out a form with their transportation costs to go to and from the workplace, documenting daily and weekly costs of transportation, before having it signed by a supervisor and submitting it. The university could process these applications and distribute cards with the value for each student’s transportation costs on a monthly or semester basis. This puts the burden of researching, applying for, and documenting costs on the students who want the benefits.
Distribution could be done at an event that also provides promotional materials for the wider range of transportation offerings in DC, including information about the robust but perhaps under-utilized bus system. While Metrobus ridership was up in Northwest DC in FY 2013, total ridership is down, especially in southeastern and eastern DC. Getting students to travel to those areas is key to widening their view of the city and its range of experiences. Prioritizing subsidies for students working in underdeveloped areas, as are many parts of southeastern and eastern DC, could help in this regard.
Conversely, a more difficult alternative that would require a good deal of negotiation with the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority, which runs Metro, would involve allowing students to use their GWorld like a SmarTrip card. Interestingly, WMATA has just announced a pilot program that would allow the use of near-field communication (NFC) technology to pay at fare gates, along with federal ID cards, and contactless credit and debit cards. Should this program prove successful, GW could work with WMATA to expand the accepted payment methods to include GWorld. The university could conceivably credit students the transportation fare on their student IDs, which would also make it easier to ensure that the students who applied for and received the subsidy were using the transportation and not giving it away or selling it.
It is important to note that GW already acknowledges the financial burden unpaid internships can have. The Knowledge and Action Career Internship Fund (KACIF) provides grants of up to $3,000 for students working unpaid internships. It is a highly competitive process to receive such a grant, but it also evidences the Career Services Council’s understanding of the heightened importance internships have in today’s job market. KACIF is made possible through donations, which is the way a subsidized transportation system would almost necessarily have to work, given the school’s current budget woes. This is a tenuous source for funding, but KACIF is also useful as a precedent for this kind of program. Donors clearly care about student internships, so it is not unreasonable to think that such a program could be expanded. In the pilot stages, the budget for this could be limited to less than $10,000 per semester. This would allow for the gauging of efficacy without significant financial investment. Ideally, subsidized transportation would be overseen by the Center for Career Services.
Some employers offer interns money to cover transportation costs already, and, while laudable, this is something that should be the norm. There is an argument to be made that if GW were to implement such a subsidy program, firms might end their subsidies, passing costs onto the university. This is a legitimate concern, but the smaller nature of this program, at least initially, could largely keep this from happening. Even with the KACIF program’s internship subsidies, some employers still offer paid internships for students.
Ideally, WMATA would implement a student fare for the Metro. In Pittsburgh, the Port Authority of Allegheny County allows local college students to ride the bus for free by tapping their student ID on the farebox. This may not be feasible in DC, given the massive size and budget of the Metro program, but changing costs on the demand side may be reasonable.
Enabling students to work across the city would help lead to more-experienced graduates better prepared to enter the professional workforce. Subsidized transportation could also link nonprofits and programs across the city, especially in underdeveloped areas, with students willing to broaden their view. This double advantage, of creating more active, engaged students with more professional experience, is exactly the sort of benefit GW should undertake. One way to develop these students is to make it easier for them to take advantage of the opportunities that abound in and around DC.
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