When I turned 15 back in the late 1980s, taking driver's education was a given. In Michigan, as in many states at the time, young drivers were trained through the public school system, and as such, the program was free. Today, though, that's no longer the case. In 2004, Michigan restructured and defunded its driver's education program, shifting oversight from the Department of Education to the Department of State, and the burden of funding driver's ed from the state onto families. This trend has followed in most states across the country. Driver's ed in America has long been considered a teenage rite of passage, but data is beginning to show that fewer teens than ever are participating. And considering that driver's ed can set a family back around $500, the teens most likely to be left out are those who are poor.
Mike Dewaele is an after-school organizer and community member at The Peace House, an intentional community nestled into Kalamazoo's Eastside, one of the city's poorest neighborhoods. He says that almost none of the teens in his neighborhood take driver's ed. The families that live at Peace House offer after-school and summer programs for children and youth, spanning preschool through young adulthood. It's a place where you'll often find lots of kids hanging out, playing basketball, having snacks, and doing homework after school.
"Kids of driving age that I've talked to, they have jobs and sports and other stuff," Dewaele says of the reasons that most of them don't take driver's ed. The handful of teens Dewaele knows who've taken driver's ed have saved their own money and paid for it themselves.
Dewaele says that, when young adults get to be about 19 or 20 years old, cars start to become very important for certain goals, like getting to college, or commuting to a job. "Getting a bus to, say, a second-shift or a third-shift job is really difficult, so it's really important for them to lock down that automobile transportation. And that's one thing that I heard a lot — 'I want to get a car so I can go to such and such a job.'"
The ability to obtain a driver's license isn't just about fitting in, or the stigma that comes from being left out. Teens who have a license will naturally have more opportunities. They're the ones who will have access to a wider variety of jobs, they'll be more likely to obtain and hold a job, and they will have an easier time accessing goods and services.
Michigan is a useful point of study because the percentage of teens who obtain licenses in Michigan is quite in line with national trends (though Michigan does lag comparatively in terms of how quickly younger students obtain their license). State of Michigan data shows that, in 2004, 59 percent of teens had obtained a driver's license before they turned 18. By 2016 that percentage dropped by five points, to 54 percent.
Nationwide, delays in obtaining a license are widespread, according to a 2013 study conducted by the AAA Foundation for Traffic Safety. According to the study, just 54 percent of teens are licensed before they turn 18, and only 44 percent of teens obtain a driver's license within the first 12 months of their being eligible to do so. In Michigan the number of younger drivers is even lower: In 2012, only 34 percent of teens younger than 16 had their license, and that percentage has remained consistent since.
All states have some form of Graduated Driver Licensing programs, which place specific limitations and restrictions on teen licenses in order to help them safely accumulate more experience and confidence on the road. The study found little evidence that Graduated Driver Licensing requirements had contributed to the delays in teens obtaining a license. Instead, the majority of respondents cited lack of access to a car, being able to get around without driving, and costs associated with driving as reasons for putting off getting a license. The study indicates that the most common barriers keeping kids from taking driver's ed are related to accessibility and cost, and not the difficulty of the program. In other words, this new way of administering driver's ed makes things harder for teens in poor areas.
Less funding, less participation
For families living paycheck to paycheck, setting money aside might be the only feasible way to arrange driver's ed for their teen — that is, if they have any money to set aside in the first place. Many families in the city of Kalamazoo are already scraping to get by: Thirty-two percent of Kalamazoo families with children live below the federal poverty line, which is well above state (21 percent) and national (18 percent) averages.
Teen driver's license rates in Kalamazoo County help indicate how class might influence a teen's access to driver's ed. In 2016 in Kalamazoo County, only 53 percent of teens obtained their licenses before turning 18, which is similar to statewide data. But since the shift in structure and funding in 2004, Kalamazoo's total teen licensure rate dropped by a whopping 13 percent, compared to Michigan's statewide drop of only 5 percent. In a more affluent county, like Oakland, Michigan, teens are not only getting their licenses at a higher rate overall, but they're also getting them faster: Oakland's total teen driver's license rate is 11 percent higher than Kalamazoo's and 10 percent higher than the state average.
The State of Michigan's website suggests would-be drivers contact local agencies to ask about financial assistance, but determining what agencies might offer assistance can be confusing. In Kalamazoo, even with its poverty problem, none of the various private companies that provide driver's education offer scholarships or income-based sliding price scales. For aspiring drivers seeking financial assistance, these companies offer payment plans, which allow Segment I's training fees — $300 — to be paid in installments over the course of about four weeks. Segment I training is the biggest up-front cost of the program.
It's a seemingly endless cycle for families looking for financial help: The Michigan Secretary of State's website directs families — quite vaguely — to seek funding from "local agencies," who, in turn, suggest that families inquire with the state. In many communities, there simply are no funds offered to support low-income students who want to take driver's ed.
There's a similar pattern nationwide of teens missing driver's ed because they lack financial assistance. An exception to that rule is Georgia, which offers a grant scholarship program to young drivers. Not only is Georgia's grant scholarship application linked prominently from the state's driver's ed webpage, but it's actually funded through the state via a 1.5 percent surcharge on all traffic citations issued. Financial aid is offered to dependents of public safety officers and military members killed in the line of duty, and to those who demonstrate a financial need. Since the program began in March of 2017, more than 9,000 students have been awarded driver's ed scholarships.
Many organizations use SNAP benefits or free and reduced lunch qualification as a basis for determining scholarship opportunities for activities, like art and music lessons, summer camps, sports fees, and other cost-based educational opportunities. In the past, my own kids have qualified for scholarships at art programs, nature centers, and math and science day camps.
Summer camps are a revealing comparison because they can cost around the same or more than driver's education, but unlike driver's education companies, many camps offer scholarships to campers based on financial need. According to its website, Mystic Lake, a YMCA Camp in Lansing, Michigan, for instance, costs $520 for a week-long stay, and the camp offers financial aid to families who qualify, based on their household income.
On a grand scale, driver's ed scholarships are a largely unrecognized and unmet need in most communities. And unless they are funded by a state program, like the one in Georgia, and thereby listed on a state's driver's education webpage, they can be difficult to find.
"A large sense of pity all around"
Ruby Hensley is a 19-year-old college student who graduated from Kalamazoo Public Schools. Hensley's high school friend group was mostly white and middle class. For Hensley's peer group, taking driver's ed was a given. Hensley's parents were able to pay, and, Hensley says that, for most of her classmates, their parents did too.
"Not a lot of people talked about the cost of driver's ed, but more about how they were going to get a car or pay for insurance," Hensley says, adding that the only time that someone talked about their parents not being able to afford it was if a teen had to pay for it themselves, which Hensley says was rare. Hensley notes that the stigma attached to not taking driver's ed was unspoken. "If you couldn't afford driver's ed no one would say anything but there would definitely be a large sense of pity all around."
Fred Woodhams, communications director for the Michigan Department of State, says that the changes to the Michigan driver's education law in 2004 have resulted in better and more consistent training for teens, noting that, "in 2004, young drivers were involved in 83,785 crashes compared to 56,643 in 2016."
Still, while teen crashes in Michigan have declined, so have participation rates in driver's ed. Nationwide there's been a similar trend: National surveys of high school seniors show that, in 1996, 85 percent of high school seniors had reported having a license; in 2010, that number had dropped to 73 percent. In Michigan, 68 percent of 17-year-olds had their license in 2010, and that figure has remained the same through 2016.
Woodhams' department chalks up the decrease in participation in driver's ed in Michigan to a few factors: increase in the cost to teens and their families, reduced interest in getting a driver's license, and an overall decrease in the number of teens in Michigan.
The disparities between which kids obtain licenses follow predictable racial and economic lines. According to the AAA study, 67 percent of white teens had obtained their license by age 18, compared to only 37 percent of black teens and 29 percent of Hispanic teens. In addition, the study found a strong economic disparity: Teens in households with annual incomes greater than $60,000 obtained their licenses at a rate of 60 percent within one year of their state's minimum age for licensure and 72 percent were licensed before they turned 18. Meanwhile, for teens in households with annual incomes of less than $20,000, only 16 percent were licensed within one year of their state's minimum age and only 25 percent were licensed before age 18.
Meanwhile, some teens whom Dewaele knows are biking six or seven miles round-trip on some of the busiest stretches of roads in the city to get to their part-time jobs. "You gotta plan for it," he says. "It's like a 40-minute commute, maybe, instead of like 10, 15 [minutes] or something like that. And that means getting up early and doing that in inclement weather. But that's just the group of kids that I know; they're just really resilient and they just do what they gotta do, and it gets done."
As states have prioritized more stringent GDL guidelines with the goal of turning out safer young drivers, they've neglected to consider the effects that taking funds from the program has had on residents. The lack of a driver's license can contribute to already-existing inequities that poor teens and teens of color face; to level the playing field, states will need to craft policies that make driver's ed more accessible for everyone.
This story originally appeared as Driver's ed is becoming harder for poor kids to afford on Pacific Standard, an editorial partner site. Subscribe to the magazine's newsletter and follow Pacific Standard on Twitter to support journalism in the public interest.