Swarthmore claims to be a cash-free campus, but many students may find hidden costs behind the pretext of access. While Swarthmore’s proximity to Philadelphia is often a selling point for prospective students, many students are unable to make the expensive SEPTA train ride.
A SEPTA trip to Center City Philadelphia costs $7 each way — $6 if the tickets are bought in advance, but the ticket office is only open from 5:30 a.m. to 11:15 a.m. on weekdays and is closed during the weekend when most students travel. The $14 quickly adds up, especially with any additional costs of meals and museum trips. If a student went to Philly once a week for a semester at this price, it would cost over $250, a significant financial burden for many students.
Swarthmore offers a few options to defray the price of SEPTA tickets. Since 2017, the Office of Student Engagement has lotteried off a set number of SEPTA tickets twice a month. The Student Government Organization and the Student Budget Committee collaborated with OSE starting last year to provide additional tickets exclusively for low-income students through the lottery. The initial funding for the general lottery ran out at the end of last semester, and the lottery for low-income students has not yet been held this semester. OSE, SGO, and SBC are currently in the process of evaluating the lottery program and negotiating a funding extension for the low-income lottery. Even once the SEPTA lottery is reinstated, SEPTA tickets will still not be accessible enough. The unpredictable nature of a lottery makes planning for a trip difficult, especially if students are planning to go to Philadelphia for a particular event. Even with the important addition of the lottery specifically for low-income students, students cannot always count on funding for a trip because there are a limited number of tickets in the lottery.
Students can also access free tickets through departmental reimbursement, but the process is often complicated and students must have a relevant academic reason to get the tickets. The Lang Center offers SEPTA tickets for specific events that relate to the center’s mission. As OSE evaluates the SEPTA lottery, we, at The Phoenix, call on the college to prioritize financially accessible travel to Philadelphia, especially for low-income students.
Many important learning experiences take place outside of the classroom. One of the main missions of liberal arts schools is to facilitate exploration beyond campus. Philadelphia is home to many fantastic museums and music venues, as well as a vibrant activist community. There are endless opportunities to attend inexpensive or free events in Philadelphia, including lecture series and poetry readings. Students frequently leave campus to canvas or volunteer, so accessible travel is an important part of helping Swarthmore students to be more politically engaged. It is also important for Swarthmore students to be able to engage with the communities that surround us and break the so-called “Swat Bubble.” The high cost of transportation, though, may prevent many students from taking advantage of these opportunities.
Notwithstanding the cultural and exploratory benefits of leaving campus, students often depend on the SEPTA for important off-campus events and appointments. Many may need to travel to meet with doctors, therapists, or other professionals. Philadelphia offers networking and career events for students, and these should not be limited to those who can afford the trip. These activities should not impose an unnecessary financial burden on students.
Access to Philadelphia should not be a privilege reserved only for wealthy students. There are many ways the college could achieve this goal, whether by reinstating and expanding the lottery or by subsidizing SEPTA tickets, reintroducing the Philadelphia van that once ran on weekends, offering SEPTA tickets through Career Services, or some other novel solution. Swarthmore has the resources to create a program to provide more free trips and should do so. Swarthmore promises accessibility regardless of income background; the administration should work harder to make that a reality for all students.