High gas prices pinch college students’ budgets
LOS ANGELES—When Irma Gorrocino enrolled in college, gas was selling for about $2.50 a gallon and commuting to a campus 30 miles from her Southern California home didn’t seem like such a big deal.
Now, with the price hovering near $4.50 a gallon, the 21-year-old junior at California State University, Northridge, acknowledges that she shudders every time she watches the needle on her aging Honda’s fuel gauge move toward “E.” And she’s not alone.
Gorrocino is a member of a group that numbers in the tens of thousands: college students who commute to classes from their homes by driving, some as much as 60 or more miles a day, in a state where the automobile is still often the only quick way to get from Point A to Point B.
After seeing their tuition more than double in recent years, they have now seen gas prices increase more than a half-dollar a gallon in just the past 21/2 months. It is something that has many of them thinking less about studying and more about how they’ll get to school.
“With the rising cost of tuition coupled with the rising cost of gas prices and the rising cost of textbooks, it’s hard to focus on much more than that,” said Gregory Washington, a senior political science major at California State University, Fullerton, who plans to become a lawyer. Washington, who has seen his tuition more than double to about $6,700 a year since he enrolled at Fullerton, drives 30 miles each way from his home in California’s Inland Empire.
Students like him and Gorrocino are among those hardest hit by the cost of fuel. The CSU system has on-campus housing for only about 10 percent of the 427,000 people who attend classes on its 23 campuses that are scattered across the state.
The schools, known as commuter campuses, also have little in the way of transit programs to accommodate students, although the Northridge campus, one of the system’s largest with 34,000 students, is building a transit center it envisions will eventually accommodate not only local transit buses but also commuter coaches that will carry students from as far away as 70 miles or more.
“But this is Los Angeles, not New York,” said campus spokeswoman Carmen Ramos Chandler. “There isn’t a subway station on every block and trains and buses that will take you anywhere you want to go.”
In Gorrocino’s case, it takes two subway trains, a bus and 21/2 hours to travel from her home near downtown Los Angeles to her campus in the northwestern corner of the city’s San Fernando Valley. When she attended classes during the day she did make the marathon commute, but this year she is attending at night, meaning she wouldn’t get home until after midnight.
“And in all honesty, it’s not safe to do public transportation late in the evening,” she said.
So she gases up her 1997 Honda Accord with more than 215,000 miles on the odometer and hopes it will hold together for a few more months. Financially, she’s surviving on a combination of student loans, scholarships, money from her parents and seasonal work as a lifeguard.
Before the spike in gas prices, a $40 fill-up took her to school and back for a week. Now it takes two $40 fill-ups, doubling her weekly school gas expense.
But she, like other students who drive, has found some innovative ways to balance that added expense.
“I don’t pay to eat any more,” she says, laughing. But she’s serious.
Gorrocino, who likes to eat her lunch or dinner before class, used to buy it at a restaurant on or near campus every day. Now she scans campus flyers for any event that offers free food and crashes it.
She can usually find several such gatherings a week, she said, from marketers testing new food products on students to catered campus events. But just in case there aren’t any that day, she arrives supplied with cheap snacks picked up at a discount warehouse store.
That, scoring tickets to concerts through radio call-in contests instead of buying them and skipping luxuries like having her nails done has so far balanced out the increased weekly cost of gas.
For his part, Washington has eliminated lengthy trips to the beach, to Los Angeles and other areas, the goal being to cut back his driving to the extent it balances out the increasing cost of gas he needs to get to school. So far he says he’s succeeded.
Still other students report they are turning to those traditional sources of quick student cash, financial aid loans that must be repaid after graduation and their parents’ bank accounts, which will likely never be repaid.
At the University of California schools, where a third of undergraduates live on campus, there are also vanpool and carpool programs. The UCs in Los Angeles and San Francisco, for example, both offer vanpools that carry students and faculty to campus from as far away as 70 miles.
UCLA, with 170 such vans and subsidized fares for buses and trains, has perhaps the most extensive alternative transportation program of any university in the state. But officials there still estimate that about 25 percent of their 40,000 students drive to school each day.
To offset that, school officials are doing more to promote bicycling to campus for those close enough, providing secure stations to lock bikes at and other incentives.
At the University of California, Santa Cruz, for example, bicycling was never popular because students must pedal up a steep hill to get to the campus that overlooks the Pacific Ocean. So school officials have begun to attract more riders by putting a bike rack on a trailer that is towed by a van, allowing students to vanpool up the hill and then ride back down.
Perhaps the hardest hit group of students, though, are the 2.5 million who attend California’s 112 community colleges. Only 11 campuses have student housing, which means almost everyone commutes.
On a recent day at Pasadena City College, the campus’ multilevel garage was filled to capacity before noon, with a long line of cars, engines idling, waiting to get in.
One student, 18-year-old freshman Christian Zwicky, chose to forgo the parking garage, not to avoid the crowd but to park a mile or so off campus and walk in order to save the $64-a-semester parking fee. He’s also quit eating out, buying video games and spending money and is considering riding his bicycle the seven miles to campus to cut down on gas.
Although their tuition, at $36 a unit for state residents, is a fraction of what CSU and University of California students pay, and their commute often not as far, students like Zwicky are still feeling the pinch.
That’s in part because budget cuts have eliminated so many classes at the two-year schools that 10 percent of those students now enroll at more than one campus and spend their time driving back and forth between them, said California Community Colleges spokesman Paul Feist. They often need their cars to make such connections on time.
Carly Abelman, a senior at California State University, Northridge, said she needs hers for similar reasons.
“I do have a few friends that live out here and we could technically carpool together, but our schedules don’t match,” says Abelman, who drives 30 miles to school each day from suburban Santa Clarita.
To balance the added gas expense she has taken to staying at the homes of sorority sisters who live closer in. She’ll also arrive at her after-school job at a restaurant near her home hours early and sit there and study to avoid using any extra gas to drive home and back.
The irony of it, the 21-year-old senior said, is that she once lived on campus, at San Diego State University.
But the cost of student housing and rising tuition was burying her in debt, so she decided to move back in with her parents and transfer to the nearest state university.
“That was the whole purpose,” she said, “To live back at home and save money that way. But with the economy and the gas prices, it really hasn’t helped much.”