Community Colleges Help Students With Soaring Gas Prices

Schools are shifting to limited remote learning and tapping COVID-19 relief funds to ensure students can get to class.
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  • Several community colleges are shifting toward remote learning on Fridays so students don't have to drive to class.
  • Another community college is using pandemic relief funds to create $400 "gas grants."
  • Gas prices have dramatically increased since the beginning of the year amid inflation and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.

Community colleges embraced remote learning to combat the spread of COVID-19. But this summer, several are reinstituting virtual classes for a new reason: soaring gas prices.

Gas prices averaged just $2.42 per gallon at the start of 2021, according to the U.S. Energy Information Administration, and averaged around $3.41 at the start of 2022. Those numbers have increased rapidly in recent months to more than $4.50 per gallon in May. Gas prices are currently around $4.89 per gallon, according to AAA.

In May, Southwest Tennessee Community College in Memphis moved to remote learning on Fridays to ease the burden of gas prices for its student body. Virtual Fridays will continue through August 12, the school told BestColleges.

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Cory Major, Southwest Tennessee's interim vice president for student affairs, told BestColleges that the move to limited virtual learning has already helped students.

"I had a student actually mention that, if we were actually coming on Fridays, she would have to fill up her tank up on Monday and would have to most likely refill it on Friday morning to get here on that fifth day," Major said. "She's been essentially taking about a quarter of a tank to get back and forth because of where she lives."

The college, which is recognized as a predominantly Black institution (PBI), serves students who commute from Memphis as well as from surrounding rural communities in Tennessee, Arkansas, and Mississippi.

Major noted that gas isn't the only commodity that's seen a price hike since the beginning of the year: Rising inflation has also increased the price of food and other goods.

The college "fine tuned" its online learning protocols during the pandemic and was able to easily transition to virtual learning in May to aid students and staff, Major said.

"Those experiences allowed us to do something that in the beginning was very disruptive, that now is becoming almost second nature for us," he said.

Southwestern Community College in Sylva, North Carolina, also opted for virtual Fridays due to high gas prices starting June 10, according to the school. The policy will stay in effect until August 5.

At Northern Virginia Community College (NOVA), meanwhile, officials opted to use federal relief funds to help students pay for gas — to the tune of $6.3 million in total.

"It was crucial for NOVA to help our students during this time of rising gas prices and inflation," Michelle Brown-Nevers, vice president of student success and enrollment management, told BestColleges in an email statement. "Over the spring semester, NOVA was proud to offer $6.3M in fuel grants to alleviate some travel costs for students who were commuting to and from campuses. This helped 15,642 students who received individual $400 grants."

Southwest Tennessee's Major said the response to rising gas prices is a "perfect example" of how adaptive community colleges can be.

"I think that, as you look at community colleges across the board, we are being more responsive to our students and to our community as a whole because … we tend to be on the frontlines closer to the communities, closer to those students that we're serving," Major said.