Commuter Students

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According to Laura J. Horn and Jennifer Berktold, approximately 86 percent of college and university students are defined as commuter students, that is, students not living in university-owned housing. The commuter student population is a diverse group, which encompasses full-time students who live with their parents, part-time students who live in off-campus apartments, parents with children at home, and full-time workers. Commuters range in age from the traditional college student (eighteen to twenty-four years old) to the older adult. They attend every type of higher education institution, including two-year and four-year public universities or private colleges. Typically commuter students walk, ride bikes, take public transportation, or drive to campus to go to classes. They often attend classes and then go home or to work, rarely spending additional time outside of the classroom on campus.

Students commute to campus for several reasons. Unlike many full-time residential students, commuter students may have competing responsibilities outside the academic classroom, such as family, home, and work interests. For those students who are working full-time, raising a family, or caring for an elderly parent, campus residency is not a viable option. Also, commuting may be economically beneficial because many commuter students cannot afford to live on campus. Despite residing off-campus, most commuter students have high academic aspirations and a strong commitment to learning.

Commuter Student Challenges

Commuter students encounter many challenges that residential students do not. Commuter students, particularly first-year students, often have a difficult time "fitting in" to the campus community. Commuters often find the task of meeting students challenging because their only point of contact with other students is in the classroom, a small part of the total college experience. Residential students live, eat, study, and socialize together in residence halls, thus having greater opportunities to make friends and to become socially integrated into the campus community. A great amount of socialization for college students also occurs in the cafeteria, student center, recreation center, through extracurricular activities, or during late-night study sessions. Alexander Astin, in his 1993 study, has shown that this peer group interaction positively affects critical thinking skills, cultural awareness, leadership development, and academic development. As a result of not living in residence halls or spending a substantial amount of time on campus, commuter students miss out on these opportunities to "connect" to the university and other students and to enhance their learning and development.

Not only is frequent contact with students outside the classroom difficult to obtain, but commuters often face limited contact opportunities with faculty and staff members as well. Commuters must make additional trips to campus to meet with faculty members during their designated office hours. Unlike residential students, commuter students rarely have the opportunity to observe faculty and staff members on campus involved in nonclassroom activities, such as playing sports in the recreation center or interacting with students in the student center. These informal student-faculty interactions have been linked to academic performance and to personal and intellectual development for students, according to Ernest Pascarella and Patrick Terenzini's 1991 report. The interaction time for commuters with faculty members is often limited to a few minutes between classes or briefly during office hours, leaving commuter students feeling disconnected from the academic system of the university. Commuters often find forming relationships with faculty and administrators difficult because of these limited interactions outside of the classroom.

Transportation issues are a large part of commuter concerns. First, because of limited parking availability on most campuses, commuters have difficulty finding parking spaces and must often allow extra time to do so. Further, commuters often readjust their course schedules to attend classes in large blocks of time, again reducing the hours spent on campus outside of the classroom and the opportunity to become socially and academically integrated into the college community. Some classes may be scheduled at difficult times for commuters to attend, such as early morning or midafternoon. Because of long commutes to school, these students may encounter difficulty attending such classes, which are easily accessible for residential students.

Because of the short amount of time spent on campus each day, commuter students have a limited knowledge of the university itself, including the location of buildings, functions of university departments, campus policies and procedures, and current events. Residential students become familiar with the university by spending a substantial amount of time on campus, taking part in student forums, and discussing current campus events in the residence hall or in small groups. Therefore, residential students often have a better understanding of the status of the university, because commuter students must wait to receive pertinent information through mailings or newspaper articles. In addition, greater proximity gives residential students more frequent occasions to establish personal relationships with faculty and staff, who serve as resources and mentors. These mentors may provide assistance and information regarding new policies and procedures.

Finally, research indicates that commuter students have lower retention rates than those living on campus. A study by Vincent Tinto in 1987 indicates that students who have high interaction with their university's academic and social systems are more likely to persist in college. Because commuter students spend limited time on campus and limited time creating relationships with other students, faculty, and staff, they have fewer opportunities to engage in quality interactions with these individuals. Therefore they are less likely to make a strong commitment to the university or its programs and are more likely to drop out of school than residential students.

See also: College and Its Effect on Students; College and University Residence Halls; College Student Retention.


Astin, Alexander W. 1975. Preventing Students from Dropping Out. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Astin, Alexander W. 1993. "What Matters in College?" Liberal Education 79:415.

Horn, Laura J., and Berktold, Jennifer. 1998. Profile of Undergraduates in U.S. Postsecondary Education Institutions: 1995-96. Washington, DC: Office of Educational Research and Improvement, U.S. Department of Education (NCES 98-084).

Jacoby, Barbara. 2000. "Involving Commuter Students in Learning: Moving from Rhetoric to Reality." In Involving Commuter Students in Learning: New Directions for Higher Education No. 109, ed. Barbara Jacoby. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Pascarella, Ernest; Bohr, Louise; Amaury, Nora; Zusman, Barbara; Inman, Patricia; and Desler, Mary. 1993. "Cognitive Impacts of Living on Campus Versus Commuting to College." Journal of College Student Development 34:216220.

Pascarella, Ernest T., and Terenzini, Patrick T. 1991. How College Affects Students. San Francisco: Jossey-Bass.

Tinto, Vincent. 1987. Leaving College. Chicago: University of Chicago Press.

Wolfe, Janice S. 1993. "Institutional Integration, Academic Success, and Persistence of First-Year Commuter and Resident Students." Journal of College Student Development 34:321326.

Amy M. Tenhouse