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SALT LAKE CITY — Some area college students say they may be forced to quit school because of dramatic fare hikes for mass transit passes.
Changes in agreements between local colleges and universities and the Utah Transit Authority have pushed the cost of transit fares up more than 1,000 percent for some students, prompting many to find news ways to commute to and from class or drop out altogether.
We … don't know if we can afford to go to school anymore now that we have to drive.
Last term, students at LDS Business College paid $90 per semester for a premium transit pass that covered fares for local and express buses as well as TRAX and FrontRunner. This fall, the price for a premium pass jumped to $135 per month — or $540 per semester at the downtown institution.
The huge increase has forced some students to reconsider enrollment this year.
"We … don't know if we can afford to go to school anymore now that we have to drive," said LDSBC student Ben Auga via email.
The price hikes occurred following a decision in July by the Utah Board of Regents, which approved a new strategy to conduct collective bargaining on behalf of most of Utah's higher education schools. The contract would be for three-years, as opposed to the customary year-to-year agreements previously negotiated. Higher-ed officials said the goal was to smooth out the bumps caused by annual contracts and transit fare increases. While the new agreement may have been useful for the state's public institutions, private colleges did not benefit.
"That decision literally made about 80 LDSBC students rethink this semester and they will not be attending because some of them don't have cars to travel from Davis County or farther," Auga said.
According to UTA, students make up 25 percent of its total ridership market. But the fare increases could have a significant impact on student commuters, particularly from Davis, Weber, Tooele and Utah counties.
"Normally I take the (FrontRunner) train, but now I have to drive," said Rachel Garner, a student at LDSBC who commutes from Davis County. When she realized how much the pass would cost this semester, Garner said, "It was ridiculous! I'm barely affording tuition."
Every school contract was negotiated with UTA individually and each school could choose to subsidize all or a portion of the cost of the pass for their students, according to UTA spokesman Gerry Carpenter.
It's ridiculous that the state is telling us to take public transit, but we can't afford it.
"So it can vary dramatically from school to school," he said.
For example, the University of Utah and Weber State University subsidize 100 percent of the cost of the pass, while Brigham Young University, Utah Valley University and Salt Lake Community College subsidize a portion of the cost.
Other schools, such as LDSBC, chose to pass the entire cost of the pass on to their students this year. It was a decision that weighed heavily on administrators, said Matthew Tittle, dean of student life at LDSBC.
He said a significant number of students commute from neighboring counties and admits the cost hike may force some to make a tough choice.
"We've had several students approach us (who said) this might make the difference in us coming to the school," Tittle said.
UTA’s standard discount for students is 25 percent off the regular monthly pass rate or $56.25, which includes local buses and TRAX. That discount applies to premium passes as well, but the $135 cost is much higher because riders pay based on distance traveled.
Not every school has been hit as hard as LDSBC. Because of a small reserve fund that BYU established through the old UTA Ed Pass program, BYU will be able to subsidize the Student Transit Pass until a $150,000 fund is depleted. There is a $10 subsidy for 30-day passes (regular or premium) and a $50 subsidy for semester passes.
Once the fund is depleted, students will need to purchase passes at the regular student discounted fare. Although BYU has been told that some colleges and universities in Utah will subsidize the fare throughout the entire school year, officials there said the school has limited funds and will only be able to subsidize on a limited basis.
For now, some students will just have to figure out what choice they can afford to make.
"It's ridiculous that the state is telling us to take public transit, but we can't afford it," Garner said.