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Commuting Students Trapped by Soaring Gas Prices

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Rutgers University student Kathleen Roughgarden has been living off campus with friends for a year, relying on her car to get around. When gas prices began soaring in 2022, she felt forced to scale back her driving.

But when she explained her predicament to one of her housemates, her friend made a flippant recommendation.

“Katie, you should just drive a Tesla, and you wouldn’t have to worry about gas!” the housemate advised.

“She comes from a very wealthy family,” Roughgarden pointed out. “But the reality of the situation is that I can’t afford a Tesla, especially not when I have a car that’s in perfectly good condition!

“So many of us students can’t afford the alternative, so we’re stuck paying for ridiculously expensive gas, since the majority of us don’t have Teslas as college students. It’s a lose-lose situation for the average college student.”

Roughgarden is among the many thousands of college students around the country whose lives were upended by the abrupt and sharp increase in gas prices. And middle class and poor students have surely felt the pain most deeply.

Transportation can comprise some 17 percent of a commuting student’s budget, according to the College Board. With gas prices at a 14-year high – the average price at the pump was nearly $4.40 on May 10, 2022, up from $3 in May 2021 – commuting students’ transportation costs have climbed nearly 50 percent over a year ago.

According to AAA Gas Prices, the average price of regular gas in New Jersey on April 2, 2022 was $4.174 per gallon, when the average per-gallon price one month earlier was $3.754, and the average one year before – during the height of the pandemic- was only $2.918.

Why are gas prices rising?

Oil is one of the most volatile global commodities, with its price and availability partly dependent upon the policies and actions of several powerful nations. The United States, Saudi Arabia, China, Canada and Russia are the five major players. According to the Energy Information Administration, Russia was the third-largest global oil supplier in 2020, lending the country massive leverage in the global industry. So it’s clear why Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has caused global oil price shockwaves.

President Joe Biden has imposed a series of sanctions on Russian imports- including on gas and oil – in support of Ukraine. Yet, this public denouncement of Russia and its actions created vast financial consequences for the average American citizen, many of whom rely on gas to carry out their daily routines.

“Russia’s invasion and the responding escalating series of financial sanctions by the U.S. and its allies have given the global oil market the jitters,” said AAA spokesperson Andrew Gross. “Like the U.S. stock market, the oil market responds poorly to volatility. It’s an explosive situation, and a grim reminder that events on the far side of the globe can have a ripple effect for American consumers.”

Higher gas prices hit commuting students especially hard. Photo by Alex Ramos.

 

College students feel squeezed

When they start college, young adults are often forced to begin thinking about their own finances for the first time. In car-dependent New Jersey, auto costs are one of the biggest parts of a student’s budget.

More than 50 percent of Rutgers University students commute to campus – a percentage that likely rose during the height of the pandemic, as many students moved out of their dorms and campus-area apartments, and back in with their families.

“I chose to commute to save money,” said Alexa Burica, a Rutgers University senior who also studies at the Graduate School of Education. “I was able to keep a part-time job all throughout my college career, while simultaneously maintaining the status of a full-time student with a full course load. I only live about 25 minutes down Route 18, so it just didn’t make sense for me to spend excess money when the drive is completely doable!”

Rutgers junior Sebastian Casadollerena echoed Burica’s sentiments.

“The main reason I choose to commute is because college tuition is very expensive, and college dorms add a very big cost,” Casadollerena said. “By commuting, I save thousands of dollars by avoiding the dorm bill.”

Inflated gas prices are throwing a huge wrench into their plans.

Commuting students now feel forced to dip into their savings to buy gas to travel to class, undermining their plans to save money by living off campus.

“The increased gas prices have been beyond frustrating for me,” reflected Francesca Giordano, a Rutgers freshman and commuter. “I work to afford gas to travel to school, and a significant portion of my hard-earned money has been spent on gas.”

“Since I typically go to campus every day, I have to fill up my tank every four days. Lately, $20 doesn’t even make it to the halfway mark. I’ve found myself staying over at friends’ places more frequently just to avoid spending more on gas. Sometimes I’ll choose to skip social events because I feel as if it’s not worth the money, even though I know I would have had fun.”

Giordano said she is looking forward to the days where she can fill up her tank for $30 again. At today’s prices, filling up the tank of a Honda Civic can cost nearly $55.

It seems that, whether they choose to live on campus or at home, college students are being squeezed.

“The increased gas prices are a nightmare,” Casadollarena said. “I only work on the weekends because I need to study full time on the weekdays. The high gas prices are eating a big part of my paychecks. I feel like I’m working only to fill my car up with gas. I normally don’t go far distances, but with these gas prices I definitely do not want to think about going too far. I can’t keep filling up my car every four to five days.”

Like the innocent Ukrainian citizens forced to flee their homes, and the innocent Russian citizens robbed of outlets to speak out against their president’s actions, innocent American college student are being forced to increase their spending during their already expense-ridden college years.

Yet it seems individuals are helpless to do much about this.

“Ideally, I’d like to see the gas prices go back down, but I have simply accepted the current situation,” admitted Burica. “The gas prices are definitely concerning, but entirely out of my control. I have to finish out the semester, so I have no choice but to pay for my way there and home!”

About Post Author

About the Author
Sukanya Puthar

Sukanya Puthur
South Brunswick, N.J.

Professor: Mary D’Ambrosio
Class: Writing about Social Issues

Takeaway:
"In reporting on how the Ukrainian crisis affected students, I was able to see the domino effect that large-scale global issues can pose to the average middle-class American. Adults but not entirely independent just yet, these individuals have now been thrust full force into the throes of capitalism. I am inspired by the optimism, adaptability and grit of my peers, and hope to see the situation improve for us all."